‘Climate of terror’ reigns at CPUT

Students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) have questioned the continued use of security company Vetus Schola at the university, because the company is the subject of an ongoing corruption investigation.

The Mail & Guardian has seen a letter by former acting vice-chancellor John Volmink, written in June, alerting witnesses that the university was appointing PwC to conduct an independent investigation into corruption allegations that had emanated from a whistle-blower hotline.

“The allegations included, among others, unethical behaviour and irregular activities pertaining to CPUT’s procurement processes, approval procedures and the alleged failure to adhere to the CPUT procurement policy,” reads the letter.

Two months after Volmink announced the independent investigation, investigators from PwC started contacting key witnesses.

The M&G has seen an email that was sent to a witness by PwC, asking to meet in August. The investigator said PwC was looking into bringing security staff in-house, the procurement process concerning Vetus Schola and the authorisation of payments made to the company, and the procurement of security equipment.

Late in September, key witnesses were asked to provide supporting documentation related to the investigation.

But, as student protests intensified at the university, Vetus Schola was appointed on September 11 to provide security services on campus. The company is now the only one left at the institution as protests continue.

Since the start of #FeesMustFall in 2015, Vetus Schola was one of the security companies operating at the institution. But students who spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal questioned why the university was still using the services of a company that it was investigating for allegations of misconduct.

They claimed that a “corrupt” relationship exists between the security company and some university executives, which was the reason for the forensic investigation being instituted. The students alleged that protests at the institution are “an opportunity for some people to make a killing”.

But university spokesperson Lauren Kansley said the probe has been concluded and no wrongdoing was found on the university’s part.

“Ultimately, the conclusion was that there was no merit to allegations of incorrect procurement processes and that the awarding of security contracts was done according to the usual institutional procurement processes,” she said.

She could not say, however, when the investigation had been concluded.

Last month, about 60 university staff members wrote an open letter to acting vice-chancellor Chris Nhlapo asking for Vetus Schola’s removal.

“We make this urgent call in a climate of fear,” wrote the employees, bemoaning what they called the “militarisation” of the university.

“A climate of terror has been created by Vetus Schola, traumatising both staff and students. Staff have been witness to racial and economic profiling of students and the intimidation and harassment of female students by Vetus Schola,” they wrote.

They also asked why Vetus Schola had been given the master keys to residences, searching them whenever they wanted, and said this had caused “terror” among students.

The staff members also claimed that recently a student who had forgotten his student card in his room had been denied entry by Vetus Schola.

“In his desperation … he attempted to jump over the barbed wire set up by Vetus Schola in an attempt to control access to the university. He was caught in the barbed wire, got cut and it took a while for him to be freed. It was concerning that the emphasis of Vetus Schola was to treat him as a criminal, wanting to detain him rather than ensure his wellbeing,” the university employees wrote.

“We stand at the brink of disaster. The only way to avoid tragedy from reoccurring is to immediately remove Vetus Schola, to demilitarise our campuses. There are capable, nonmilitarised security [firms] that could be brought in on an interim basis while the matter is resolved.”

But Nhlapo told staff that Vetus Schola would remain because the university has an obligation to protect staff and students, and that most employees took “comfort” in having the security company on campus.

He said it was unfortunate that a student had been hurt trying to jump over the barbed wire but advised that he should lodge a formal complaint, “without which we cannot act”.

“My office has yet to receive any substantiated evidence of misconduct by Vetus Schola and I invite anyone with such evidence to bring it to me or to report such to the whistle-blowing hotline anonymously,” said Nhlapo.

“We cannot accede to your demand that the extra security be removed until the level of violence on campus drops significantly.”

Nhlapo has said that since July the university has spent R30‑million on private security services in an effort to bring stability to the university.

The M&G sent questions to Vetus Schola but did not get any response by the time of going to print.

Meanwhile, three students have denied being ringleaders behind the recent unrest, saying in court papers that the university was trying to find a scapegoat for its failure to deal with student concerns.

The university had approached the high court for an interdict to stop students from disrupting its activities, damaging property or intimidating staff as violent protests escalated.

The application was against four student leaders dubbed the “CPUT Four”. Last Friday, three of them filed answering affidavits, distancing themselves from the protests and saying the allegations had had a negative impact on their reputations.

The first respondent, Ayakha Magxothwa, is yet to file an answering affidavit. The students said the allegations against them were an attempt to connect individuals to unlawful activities, and bemoaned the university’s use of the courts instead of seeking alternative routes to resolve issues.

Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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