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Parliament probe into vice-chancellor fails to get answers

The parliamentary inquiry into the appointment of Peter Mbati as the vice-chancellor of Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University got off to a rocky start this week. 

The inquiry by the portfolio committee on higher education wants to establish whether Mbati’s appointment in June followed procedure. 

It will also deal with matters relating to the period from 2008 to 2018 when he was vice-chancellor of the University of Venda. These are:

l Sexual harassment allegations dating back to when Mbati was the vice-chancellor of the University of Venda (Univen);

l Whether the university followed its sexual harassment policy at the time; and

l Allegations of financial maladministration and mismanagement against him and Univen.

The first day of the inquiry achieved little. Most of the questions the committee had in relation to Mbati’s time at Univen could not be answered because two former chairpersons of council during Mbati’s tenure pulled out of the process. 

The committee decided the two would be subpoenaed because they had played a “critical role” in some of the decisions that had been taken. 

Some of the unanswered questions included allegations that Mbati had tried to change the Univen statute to allow for the extension of his contract for a third time; that he had links to a company that had been appointed to implement Univen’s infrastructure projects; and the council’s rationale for clearing him of the sexual harassment allegations. 

Univen’s council cleared Mbati of the sexual allegations in 2016. The National Prosecuting Authority also found there were no reasonable prospects of a successful prosecution. 

Last year, Mbati told the Mail & Guardian that he was ready to clear his name. He is scheduled to appear before the parliamentary enquiry at a date that is yet to be announced.

Univen’s council chairperson, Juneas Lekgetha, made it clear to the committee that he had held the position for only a year and did not have detailed answers about what had transpired during Mbati’s time. 

He said he had asked the acting director of legal services, Eric Nemekula, to provide detailed answers, but he failed to do so. 

The chairperson of the committee, Philemon Mapulane, dismissed Nemukula as an “ill-prepared witness” who answered questions generally or defensively. For instance, he noted, Nemukula said an investigation by Univen had found that Mbati had no links with the company appointed by the university to carry out its infrastructure projects. 

When Nemukula was asked to provide the names of the directors of the company and the investigation that the university had conducted, he could not do so. 

Univen’s registrar, Edward Lambani, who was the director of legal services during Mbati’s tenure. was also unable to respond to many of the questions because he had no knowledge of some of the decisions that had been taken at council level. 

In the end, Mapulane conceded that many of the questions the members had asked were not answered. “I think [we will] make sure that the relevant persons come to respond to these questions,” he said. 

“And, of course, if questions that we have are not satisfactorily responded to, we, as the portfolio committee, have a right to make our own conclusions at the end of this inquiry.” 

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

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