Deadly twist to university dispute

In January 2017, the University of Zululand’s arts faculty dean, Gregory Kamwendo, received a threat that he would go back to Malawi in a coffin. He was gunned down outside his home in Empangeni in May this year.

Two sources close to the investigation told the Mail & Guardian that his murder was a planned hit and alleged that it was organised by Zweli Nkuna, a former lecturer at the university, whose long-running strife with the professor went back to 2015.

Though media reports have claimed that the motive behind Kamwendo’s death was his uncovering of the awarding of fraudulent PhDs, the sources said this played only a small part in his murder.

On Monday, Nkuna and Oscar Mthiyane appeared in the Empangeni magistrate’s court on charges of murder. Their bail application will be heard on December 12.

According to the sources, Nkuna contacted Mthiyane, who is allegedly a taxi owner, to help him to get rid of Kamwendo.

“He [Mthiyane] told us that he was called out of the blue by Nkuna who said he had a problem that needed to be sorted. He got to a decision that the easiest way to deal with Kamwendo is to kill the professor. Both have confessed that they did this. Mthiyane said he got a call from Nkuna saying there was a quick job he wanted him to do. Even though Mthiyane did not do the work, he hired inkabi [an assassin]. He is old and can’t run away as fast as a youngster,” said the source.

Nkuna was the driver of the getaway car, according to the sources. KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson Thembeka Mbele would not confirm the details and simply stated that Empangeni detectives arrested two suspects both aged 50 for murder and they were remanded in custody until December 12 for a bail application.

But, according to the sources, the strife between Nkuna and Kamwendo started in 2015, when a student laid a complaint of assault against Nkuna.

The university conducted an investigation that found Nkuna guilty. In documents, seen by the M&G, the student said Nkuna had strangled and slapped him. “I was harassed and beaten up by a lecturer which does not teach me.

“This mister beat me up, slapped me on my face and grasped my neck through all the way from outside AL8 to the dean’s office where he continued and took my personal stuff and threw it on the passage,” reads the student’s statement.

In May 2016, Nkuna approached the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

Kamwendo testified against Nkuna, saying the behaviour of Nkuna was unbecoming of a lecturer entrusted with the lives of students.

According to the CCMA records: “His [Kamwendo’s] testimony was that he would not want such an employee in his service. Assault has no place in the institution and, because we are living in a violent society, society expects the universities to set good examples. He [Kamwendo] confirmed that he would not be comfortable to take a person who was found guilty of assault back into his employ.”

The CCMA records that, even if Nkuna was found not guilty of assault at the arbitration, Kamwendo would still be uncomfortable with taking him back into his employ.

Nkuna, who is married with nine children, testified that his relationship with his colleagues and students was “perfect”. He denied assaulting the student and said the student had made up the story.

The CCMA found in his favour and ordered that he be reinstated and paid backpay of more than R160 000. The commissioner said there were discrepancies in the evidence given by the student’s witnesses.

“The respondent’s [the student’s] witnesses not only contradicted themselves and each other, they vehemently testified that their co-witnesses had lied … This is in stark contrast to the applicant’s [Nkuna’s] testimony and that of his witnesses, who were good witnesses and their evidence was consistent,” read the arbitration award.

The university’s spokesperson, Gcina Nhleko-Mdluli, said the institution had filed papers to appeal the CCMA case. Prior to the appeal, Kamwendo filed an affidavit claiming that Nkuna had threatened his life.

“On 13 January 2017 … I was leaving Spar at Five Ways Mall in Empangeni when Mr S Zweli Nkuna, a former Unizulu sociology lecturer, charged towards me and shouted that he was not happy that I testified against him at CCMA. He declared that he was watching my movements and will ensure that I go back to Malawi in a coffin,” reads the affidavit.

Kamwendo went to the Empangeni police station to report the incident, which he described as tantamount to assault, according to the affidavit.

“I believed that he was more than capable of acting upon his threats,” Kamwendo said.

Nhleko-Mdluli said: “On a Monday after Professor Kamwendo was threatened by Nkuna, he reported to his line manager that he has filed the affidavit with the police.”

But, according to the sources, this was not the end of it.

“He [Nkuna] was not happy at all that Kamwendo testified. He was so angry he went to find inkabi to take care of him,” said one source.

Both sources have confirmed that investigations are ongoing and more people will be arrested for the murder. “We haven’t found inkabi yet, but we are close on his heels,” said one source.

Nkuna is a member of the Save Unizulu organisation, which has been uncovering allegations of wrongdoing at the university.

Nhleko-Mdluli said that university staff had received threats from Save Unizulu members.

“The threat between Nkuna and Kamwendo is not unique as this has been done by people who have forged to have an organisation [Save Unizulu] that fights management with a common agenda of destroying the management of the university. It is the view of the university that Professor Kamwendo could have been a victim of this continuation of undermining the leadership through mafia tendencies,” she said.

But, in a letter to Parliament after the murder of Kamwendo, Save Unizulu said his death came after other members had received threats.

“Given the recent gunning down of Professor [Kamwendo] … on the 22nd of May 2018, we have decided to take the recent threats that we as Save Unizulu have been receiving seriously and report this to your committee. We wish to alert the committee that this would not be the first time that such an incident has happened at Unizulu,” it reads.

Josephine Naicker, secretary general of Save Unizulu, said she was shocked when she was contacted about one of its members being implicated in the murder.

“Save Unizulu is a peaceful movement that believes in writing to authorities, DHET [the department of higher education], Parliament et cetera … which have yet to be addressed. Our organisation only promotes lawful means of addressing the institutional corruption.”

Naicker said the organisation was not aware of the details of the case “or any alleged involvement by any of our members except what we have seen in the media. I was not aware of the relationship between Mr Nkuna and Mr Kamwendo. All we know is that Mr Nkuna won his case and was ordered back to the university,” she said.

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Athandiwe Saba
Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession.

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