Witness fumbles at Mbati’s parliament inquiry

The first day of the inquiry into the appointment of Professor Peter Mbati as the vice-chancellor of the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU) and other related matters, had a rocky start in parliament on Tuesday. 

Two key witnesses who were supposed to appear before the inquiry led by the portfolio committee on higher education failed to do so, and one witness who did appear could not answer questions, leading to day one of the inquiry ending on a false note. 

The portfolio committee instituted the inquiry into Mbati late last year following his appointment as the vice-chancellor at SMU in June. He previously served as the vice-chancellor at the University of Venda (Univen). 

The committee expressed its plans to establish the inquiry just a day after Mbati took office. Its terms of reference are to look at whether the Mbati’s appointment was procedural, among other things.

The inquiry will also deal with sexual harassment allegations against Mbati when he was the vice-chancellor at Univen, in 2011, and whether the university followed its sexual harassment policy at the time. It will also evaluate allegations of financial maladministration and mismanagement against Univen and Mbati.

On Tuesday, the committee was dealing with Mbati’s affairs while at Univen. But the no-show of two witnesses, Shirely Mabusela, chair at Univen at the time of the alleged sexual harassment, and one other witness, derailed matters.

The committee’s chair, Philemon Mapulane, said the pair had made it known that they did not intend to participate when they were informed they needed to appear before the committee this week. 

“Some of the witnesses, in particular, two of the former chairpersons of the council, have indicated that they are not willing to come and participate. Unfortunately, we received that [message] late, we could not act on it on time,” said Mapulane. 

He said witnesses for the inquiry were identified last year. Most had cooperated and also provided witness statements. 

ANC committee member Tebogo Letsie said the pair had shown parliament the “middle finger” and that they needed to be subpoenaed. 

“It cannot be that people accept public office and decide whether they want to account [or not to] the people of this country and how the resources of our public institutions have been used,” he said. “We must also send a strong message to everybody else in other councils of public institutions or board members that you do not do as you please.”

Mapulane said the committee would subpoena the two individuals.

“They played a critical role during the period that we want to inquire on, especially Mrs Mabusela, who was a chairperson of the council. She was presiding over the council when all these matters were happening. So she must come to account publicly, not to us, but to the people of this country, including the constituency at the University of Venda. We will work closely with our legal services to undertake that process,” he said. 

The sole witness left to answer the committee members’ questions was the current chair of the council at Univen, Juneas Lekgetha, who took on the role last year in February.

Lekgetha said that he might be unable to answer substantively some of the questions relating to the era of Mbati. However, he said he was accompanied by the acting director of legal services, Eric Nemekula, who would provide detailed responses. 

But it became evident that Nemekula was not prepared for the enquiry.

Asked whether Mbati had ties with a company appointed to work on infrastructure projects at Univen, Nemekula said the university had done an investigation into the allegations and had found no evidence to substantiate them. 

But when he was asked who the company’s directors were, he said he did not have that information. Nemekula then said he did not anticipate that he would be asked the question, which is why he did not have the documentation available. 

Mapulane rubbished Nemekula’s claims, saying that the university was provided with the report by the department where the allegations were made, and it was asked to provide answers. 

The inquiry continues on Wednesday and Friday.

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

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