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Unisa must be purged of corrupt elements if it is to survive

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Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)/Taken August 23, 2022 – Unisa Vice-chancellor Puleng LenkaBula provide updates on development and overall progress of the institution following appointment of independent assessor. While the report sheds light on many of the challenges university face, it is blatantly dishonest on the direction of the university – on whether the situation is worsening or improving under the new leadership, the writer says.

By Mametlwe Sebei

The appointment of the independent assessor, Prof Mosia to investigate the state of Unisa following the Ministerial Task Team Report in 2021 was widely hailed as an opportunity to make an objective assessment of the university, challenges it faces and changes it need to make to preserve the integrity of its academic programme, quality assurance and financial sustainability. Nothing could be more disappointing than this report.

The independent assessor’s report failed to answer the fundamental question: In what direction is the University travelling under the new VC Prof Lenkabula? The failure of the report to deliver on these expectations, comes down to the unethical conduct of the assessor, Prof Mosia for failing to disclose the conflict of his interests in Unisa, and thereby, using the investigation to cloud, and confuse issues, and society, instead of clarifying them.

While the report does shed a light on many of the challenges university face, it is blatantly dishonest on the direction or the movement of the university – to answer the question: is the situation worsening or improving at the university under the new leadership?

And consequently, it has aided, instead of undermining, the forces who want to roll back the heroic and courageous efforts of the Executive Management under the leadership of recently appointed VC, Prof Lenkabula to dismantle corrupt networks that captured supply chain management systems of the university, and compromising its financial viability, academic programme, and quality assurances.

The conclusions of the report must therefore be rejected, set aside and the university be supported in its efforts to uproot corruption, improve its quests for knowledge production and reproduction for which we desperately need billions of rands the new management saved the university since the take-over of the new VC.

Assessment of the University

Whereas, Unisa certainly has major challenges of governance and administration, the hopeless picture and narrative painted by the assessor is false and calculated to advance the agenda of those seeking regime change. This agenda is part of the fightback by the corrupt networks that unfortunately have captured the university for a very long period and created a dire state the report describe. From the reading of the report, the following is clear:

  • The Report is ahistorical, undialectical and lacks the scientific, methodical, and analytical rigour expected of institutional assessments.
  • The Report, slanders and blames most of the problems of Unisa on the new vice-chancellor and principal, despite being new at the helm of the university. Above all, evidence suggests that Prof LenkaBula has been trying her best to improve the academic project and correcting some of the legacies left by her predecessors. For instance, In the College of Law, for which the entire section of the report is devoted, and this author is located, there were changes in the leadership of the Departments and requirements for various posts. Heads of Departments without doctorates were replaced, lecturers are also pushed and supported to get doctorates and markers without master’s degrees were terminated. None of this gets discussed, save for a nonsensical and unsubstantiated remark that an appointment of a full professor in the school of criminal justice as the Dean of the College suggests that the college doesn’t take qualifications seriously.
  • The Report is not balanced. It is blatantly biased and smacks of an ulterior motive: the agenda that has been on the cards for more than two years to remove Prof LenkaBula. The only thing good the report says about Unisa, is the fact that it is financially viable and sustainable. Even here, it treats this in passing, and says absolutely nothing of terminations of corrupt tenders that saved the university hundreds of millions of rands, and how this account for fractious relations between the VC and those who benefited from this corruption.
  • The Report rubbishes the steady improvements of Unisa’s national and global rankings, the innovative research outputs that put Unisa in the 8th position in South Africa and the increasing number of NRF-rated researchers.
  • The Report says nothing about the most backward institutional cultures that have been perpetrated by corrupt elements in the university, thereby weakening the gains of workers, students and the public that has legitimate interests in the success of Unisa.
  • The Report recommends the violation of a sacrosanct principle and policy of institutional autonomy. As workers, students, and society, we ought to reject the idea that members of the National Executive can hire and fire Vice-Chancellors.
  • The Report is flawed on many grounds, including on methodology and the law.

Mosia is conflicted, biased and unethical

It is also public knowledge that the assessor has a relationship with the Registrar of Unisa from the days when he (the assessor) was the Administrator at TUT. As it is clear from the report, Registrar, Prof Mothata, who was suspended yesterday, is a major protagonist in the internal fights with the VC Prof Lenkabula. He is central to the crisis in the Executive Management of the university and was also responsible for procurements including highly inflated prices at the VC house.

Prof Mosia appointed him into his position at TUT where he was there. This is obvious from this 2014 Press Reader’s report on TUT, titled “TUT’s top dogs in snarling fight. The report make this, and the fact that they are personally close very clear. In a paragraph dealing with Prof Mosia’s interventions at TUT, it says:

“This is when TUT administrator Professor Themba Mosia intervened at Mothata’s request. Mosia tried to quash the row at a mediation meeting last September. In his report Mosia commented: “I expressed my disappointment (at the meeting) that the team I put together could not transcend petty squabbles, and rise above matters in the best interests of the institution.”

This Registrar became infamous for attacking the then female Vice-Chancellor of TUT, Prof Ogude in an unjustified misogynistic war and we are seeing similar moves against Prof LenkaBula at Unisa too. It is clear from the current report that Prof Mosia is intervening at Unisa at the behest of Prof Mothata as he did at TUT where Prof Ogude was left with no choice but to resign under his relentless attacks. The fact that the report say absolutely nothing of the fact that the registrar was the VC responsible for refurbishments and procurements at the Unisa VC’s house, and did nothing to investigate an obvious inflation of prices, despite repeated protestations of VC is telling.

Instead, the report makes an unsubstantiated finding about the VC involvement in the refurbishments at the house. It fails to clarify what was the nature of her involvement. Most importantly, it makes no mention of a well-documented trail of VC’s protests against these brazen acts of looting in relation to procurements for refurbishments.

Clearly this is calculated to cast aspersions on the VC, whilst absolving the person who was responsible for procurement, Prof Mothata. Attached herewith is the trail of emails from the VC protesting inflation of prices, currently doing circulation. That Prof Mosia omitted all of these on his report on the spending on the house, and the fact that we are having a registrar that is charged with sexual harassment and abuse of power is not only a bad method in science. It is also telling of where his loyalty is.

No proof Prof Lenkabula acted unethically

It is not the contention of this piece that Prof LenkaBula is perfect and must not account for whatever wrongs or weaknesses. Politically, I take an issue with the fact that the highly paid university vice-chancellor has a house, and special car provided by the university. This is particularly problematic in the university that fails to meet legitimate demands for wage increases from trade unions representing poorly paid workers including cleaners, security guards, etc, and student movements fighting fee increases and for more student support.

VC needs support in struggle against tenderpreneurs

However, these are policies of the university that preceded her, and in any event there have no bearing on the current attacks against her. She is under attack because she has been rooting corrupt activities and elements at Unisa and the old networks feel threatened. Amongst others, Prof LenkaBula pioneered the laptop scheme and saved the university more than R400m. This has angered tenderpreneurs. But many academics and staff are happy, and the academic project was protected by a timeous provision of tools of trade – a laptop being central and basic in the teaching, learning, research and engaged scholarship programmes of Unisa.

We also know that she has raised questions about the fleet tender and refused to engage courier services for long-term contracts in a context where the university strategy is moving away from snail mail to digital platforms and provisioning. Overall the financial reserves of the university has now increased by R5 billion according to the assessors report, and about R7 billion according to other sources.

These achievements are not insignificant feats in a context of the university that is poorly resourced, and under grip of corrupt tenderpreneurial interests and petty-opportunism. That official residence story is a hoax. We know that the Registrar was acting Vice-Principal for Estates and Operations during the renovations and an external report commissioned at the insistence of the VC reveals that there was inflation of prices in excess of R400,000. Mosia cannot be allowed to fudge where responsibility lies on this matter.

Those responsible for procurement must explain who benefited from the inflations. Executive Management must account in a fair process that is transparent and credible to many working-class people and youth whose future is at stake at the Unisa.

To this end, I would strongly urge that the university must avail itself for an independent inquiry of the working-class movements, including national trade unions, federations and student movements, in order to make an independent class and political determinations of the issues and challenges involved as well as changes that need to be made.

The sniper that is the assessor must not be allowed to disrupt the disruptor, Prof LenkaBula. If Prof Buhlungu at Fort Hare is protected and given space to fight dark forces in Alice, then Prof LenkaBula must also be accorded the same protection and space. Prof LenkaBula and those who lead Unisa honestly with integrity, deserves the support in their quests to transform the university.

We can see the hypocrisy and double standards of the former vice chancellors too. These include Prof Pityana who was responsible for overturning the sale of the VC house at the centre of current scandal. His decision to retrieve the house from the sale costs university much more financially and in scandal than anything currently happening.

Workers, students, communities must step forward

In the final analysis, the tasks of transforming Unisa lies in the workers and academic staff, and students taking centre stage, including delegation of people with integrity to council, and senate of the university. Public representatives must also truly represent working class communities, and not politicians tied to tenderpreneurial and big corporate interests seeking profit from knowledge reproduction and research in the universities.

To this end, the rank-and-file workers, academics, and students must rise to rid themselves of corrupt and careerist opportunists at the top of their movements. It cannot be right that NEHAWU is effectively challenging an ending of laptop tender when the trade union movement has an established position on outsourcing, tendering and corruption associated with. The huge amounts of benefits for SRC members are bordering on patronage, and effectively subvert political militancy and activism, for which we need more and no less, contrary to Prof Mosia’s report.

National structures of the trade union and student movements have responsibility to also intervene in this situation. Unisa enrolls one third of students in higher education and produces half of teachers for the country. Its collapse will be more disastrous for the country and society than that of SAA, and only comparable to the current ESKOM crisis.

Ultimately, it is only the democratic control and management of the university by its academic, workers, students and communities that will ensure that the university is truly in the service of the students and society. To do this, we need to rid university of all corrupt, tenderpreneurial interests that are subverting the financial and academic systems of the university for private profiteering.

Mametlwe Sebei is a lecturer: Professional Ethics at Unisa. He writes in his personal capacity