Thidziambi Phendla (54) was axed from the University of Venda (Univen) in 2011 on internal charges of tender fraud and corruption – charges she says were false and motivated by the fact that she had laid a charge of sexual harassment against the university’s vice-chancellor, Peter Amunga Mbati.
The police investigated her. But now the National Prosecuting Authority says it won’t prosecute her.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian at her Pretoria home this week, Phendla said the NPA decision vindicates her, exactly four years since Mbati fired her from her position as dean of the institution’s school of education.
“I was charged and dismissed for something that I didn’t do,” she said. “I was dismissed for this very allegation of fraud and corruption.
“When I got this [NPA letter], I was sad instead of being happy because justice delayed is justice denied.”
The letter she received last month from senior state advocate SM Magoshi, based at the NPA’s Specialised Commercial Crimes Unit in Pretoria, told her: “Kindly take note that we have considered your inquiry, and decided not to prosecute the matter. The decision was communicated to the investigating officer as well. The matter is finalised, and my file is closed.”
Phendla said she got the letter from Magoshi only after making repeated inquiries with the NPA.
“I had to fight. I went there and said: ‘Please, it is either you charge me or finalise this thing because it has been open for the last five years and my life has stopped.’
“I really don’t know if this is how justice works. Was it because I went there to inquire about this thing?”
NPA spokesperson Luvuyo Mfaku said Magoshi handled the matter “fairly, thoroughly and within a reasonable time” since Thohoyandou police referred it to him in Nov-ember 2013.
“Due to the complex and voluminous nature of the matter, it took him from November 2013 to July 2015 to make a decision, which he communicated to Professor Phendla in the letter dated September 2,” Mfaku told the M&G.
“The reason for not proceeding with prosecution is simply that, after we analysed documents and evidential material at our disposal, it became apparent that there were no reasonable prospects for a successful prosecution.”
Phendla used to be seen as one of the country’s rising black women professors. She is a Fulbright scholar and received her doctorate from Michigan State University in 2000. She lectured at Univen and the University of Pretoria, and became a full professor in 2007.
Dismissal over fraud and corruption allegations destroyed her career, she said. “Where do I find justice? I remain unemployed with no prospect of future employment because I was maliciously defamed for criminal acts of fraud and corruption on newspapers, online media and social media worldwide.”
“In consultation” with university management, an audit firm opened an “inquiry docket” with the South African Police Services in August 2010. The firm investigated Phendla and other university employees for their role in the awarding of a cleaning tender in 2007.
University of Venda vice-chancellor Peter Amunga Mbati.
Though the audit maintained an allegation that Phendla received a bribe of R1 000 to influence the university’s tender committee to award the contract to a company named Clean Shop, it left it to the police to find evidence.
In its 2010 report, the audit firm concluded: “Due to the fact that an enquiry docket has been opened with SAPS [the South African Police Service], we recommend that the university should allow that part of the investigation to continue.
“Once we receive bank statements from the SAPS, we will analyse the transactions to identify possible suspicious money transfers or deposits, which may confirm the allegation made, that members of the tender committee received gratification from Clean Shop to improperly influence the procurement process.”
Phendla said the police never found any such evidence, but she learnt earlier this year that they had referred the matter to the NPA.
“I’ve never been involved in any fraud or corruption in the university or anywhere,” she said.
She showed the M&G a letter she wrote to the chairperson of the University of Venda’s council, Serobi Maja, last month, in which she informed him of the NPA decision.
“Mr Maja, you know very well that I have been unemployed for the last four years with no prospect of further employment elsewhere following this dismissal on an alleged criminal charge.
“With this [NPA] evidence at your disposal, may you kindly respond to this urgent matter without fear, favour or prejudice,” she wrote.
But the university’s legal services director, Edward Lambani, told the M&G the NPA’s decision doesn’t change anything.
“We do not know what the NPA letter vindicates her of. The university did not open any criminal charges against Phendla. She was fired on charges laid against her wherein … [she] was found guilty. We are not entertaining her beliefs or opinions at this stage,” he said.
Lambani said the university was instead focusing on a Labour Court hearing set for November in which Phendla will argue that she was unfairly dismissed.
“The Labour Court matter has no reliance whatsoever on any determination by the NPA,” said Lambani.
The court will hear arguments as to whether Phendla was dismissed unfairly after she brought sexual harassment charges against Mbati.
At an internal disciplinary hearing against Phendla in 2011, concerning corruption charges brought against her, she alleged that Mbati had sexually harassed her, and subsequently laid charges with the council.
“I still maintain that Mbati dismissed me because I reported sexual harassment to council,” she said.
But her dismissal resulted in the university council not charging Mbati and testing the allegations against him because Phendla was no longer employed by Univen.
Mbati has always denied the sexual harassment charges, and has now taken the Commission for Gender Equality to court for its finding on this issue (see below).
“These are malicious fabrications by Phendla,” he previously told the M&G.
University head goes to court over sex claims
University of Venda vice-chancellor Peter Amunga Mbati wants a court to set aside a report by the Commission for Gender Equality that he alleges “irrationally” found he sexually harassed axed dean Thidziambi Phendla.
Mbati and the university’s council have taken the commission to the high court over the investigative report it released in December last year.
The application is to be heard on October 12 in Johannesburg. Mbati argues the commission failed to investigate complaints Phendla brought to it, yet “in the report, the commission found that I had sexually harassed one of my employees … Phendla”.
Arguing that the report is “defective” under the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, he wants its findings reviewed and set aside. It will cause damage to his reputation and that of the university while it stands, he says in his affidavit.
In February, City Press published an article headlined “Professor ‘sexually harassed’ for years”. “It reports at length on the report’s findings. There is also a photograph of me,” Mbati said. Commission chief executive Keketso Maema has asked the court to dismiss Mbati’s application with costs. She argues that he should not have brought the application to court but should first have tried to exhaust all internal remedies.
Maema also maintains that Mbati’s application misrepresents the commission’s findings, and denies that it found he had sexually harassed Phendla.
The commission found that the university had failed to apply its sexual harassment policy when Phendla brought complaints against Mbati, says Maema.
“It is evident that what the applicants seek to elevate as findings are, in fact, not the main findings, as apparent from the investigative report,” Maema said.
“The main finding in the investigative report is that the applicants failed to observe their sexual harassment policy and to give effect to all the processes [that] are entailed in the sexual harassment policy. That is the core and essence of the investigative report.”
The probe included interviews with Mbati and a number of the university’s employees, Maema said. “A complaint was received and duly investigated and an investigative report compiled.”
Phendla, the former dean of the university’s education school, filed a complaint with the commission in May 2012, after losing faith in how the university council handled her claims that Mbati sexually harassed her and coerced her into a sexual relationship.
But in 2011 she was dismissed over fraud and corruption charges, which she denied, after which she says the council dragged its feet about subjecting Mbati to a hearing.