Vaal University takes Blade to court

Vaal University of Technology (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Vaal University of Technology (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande's "propensity to interfere" in university governance is central to another court action that challenges his decision to place a tertiary institution under administration.

Nzimande placed the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) under administration in July. But now five members of the council he dissolved have approached the North Gauteng High Court to overturn his decision.

The applicants are asking the court to "look into the conduct of [Nzimande], who  has a propensity to interfere in the affairs of council", their affidavit says.

Their application follows the Central University of Technology's successful court action last year in similar circumstances. In launching that action, the university became the first of the five Nzimande has placed under administration to challenge him in court.

Nzimande disbanded VUT's highest governing body after the independent assessor he appointed, Advocate Muzi Sikhakhane, concluded the council was "incapable of providing strategic leadership".

Unfair protection
Patrick Fitzgerald, then deputy vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, was appointed as VUT's administrator. Council members at the time rubbished Nzimande's move as an attempt to protect VUT vice-chancellor Irene Moutlana, whom he left in office.

In their founding affidavit, signed by long-serving member Samuel Doki Mahlasela, the applicants want Fitzgerald's appointment to be declared "unlawful and invalid".

"Flawed" processes suggest the appointment of the independent assessor was "pre-determined and lacked credibility", the affidavit says.

The applicants include South African Football Association president Kirsten Nematandani and Sello Pitso, an ANC councillor in the Vaal. All five will argue in court that Sikhakhane's report was biased because it did not reflect submissions that levelled allegations against Moutlana.

At the centre of this argument are two reports submitted to Sikhakhane during his assessment of VUT. One was a council report that alleged Moutlana had acted improperly in awarding a tender that ended up incurring excess expenditure of almost R831 000 in 2010. The other, submitted by the university's former deputy vice-chancellor for finance, Prakash Naidoo, detailed various allegations of mismanagement against the vice-chancellor.

Running the risk
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian in December, Sikhakhane denied any omission or bias and said his report to Nzimande "proposed an independent inquiry" over allegations against Moutlana. "I felt that, for as long as the accusations were dealt with by those internal [to VUT], they would always run the risk of being questioned."

Fitzgerald finally suspended Moutlana in November pending investigations of the allegations against her.

But the applicants will also submit to the court that "it was wrong and unjustified for [Nzimande] to accept the recommendations of the independent assessor without the input of the council as required by the [Higher Education] Act. This clearly amounted to a lack of proper consultation," Mahlasela said in the affidavit.

Moutlana's lawyer, Sandile July, said the allegations against her "have never had substance". "She's being targeted by the very same people (council members)."

Nzimande's spokesperson, Vuyelwa Qinga, said the department would oppose the application. "Our view is that there is no basis for the intended relief sought by the application," she said.

Bongani Nkosi

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