Unisa council members quit over fiasco

Call for urgent action over assessor’s scathing report on the university




Arena Holdings PTY


News | Education

● Unisa’s council has been hit by two resignations in the wake of a damning assessor’s report into the affairs of the embattled institution. Belinda Mapongwana, chair of council’s social and ethics committee, resigned with immediate effect on Friday without providing a reason. But a council member said it was linked to the council’s failure to call a special meeting on Friday. Yesterday, Sedzani Mudau informed the council in a letter that she was also resigning, and that her decision was triggered by a resolution taken during a council meeting on Thursday to ask higher education minister Blade Nzimande to grant an extension of 21 working days to respond to the report. Nzimande had given the council 14 days to respond. “I find no alternative but to resign as it will be impossible to serve against my strong conviction [that] appropriate and urgent action is required on the independent assessor’s report to restore public confidence,” Mudau wrote. “As reflected in the minority view during the meeting of May 18, it will be more appropriate for council to focus its efforts on restoring public confidence in this vital and historic institution by urgently acting on the governance failures highlighted in the report, which are mostly an accurate reflection.” Mudau is the chair of the audit and risk committee and was praised by independent assessor Prof Themba Mosia in the report as performing well in her role. Mosia made 26 recommendations to Nzimande, which included placing Unisa under administration and relieving the council and management of their duties. A council meeting, scheduled for Friday, where the suspension of vice-chancellor Puleng LenkaBula was expected to have been put to a vote, was cancelled. Council chair James Maboa said this was because at least seven days’ notice was required before an extraordinary meeting. During Thursday’s council meeting, member Prof Muxe Nkondo proposed in a letter that LenkaBula be temporarily suspended and subjected to a disciplinary process which would “give her space to defend herself”. He said in the letter, which was leaked to the Sunday Times, that the council should welcome Mosia’s report and “use it as an opportunity to rethink and replan how to govern the university”. “There should be a request for state intelligence to investigate allegations of corruption networks referred to in the report. It calls for an investigation of social bonds in the governance structures of the university that tend to undermine the institutional and public good.” Another council member, Samkelisiwe Ndlovu, president of Unisa’s National Student Representative Council (NSRC), said they also proposed that LenkaBula take “a leave of absence” until the allegations involving her are cleared. Sources attending Thursday’s council meeting said while most had agreed LenkaBula be suspended, a minority was “hell-bent on protecting the maladministration”. Mosia said his assessment revealed “a cauldron of instability characterised by a culture of fear, intimidation and bullying, instances of maladministration, financial irregularities, human resources’ failures, poor student services, academic malpractices and questionable management and council decisions”. Unisa, the largest open distance learning institution on the continent, enrols almost a third of South Africa’s university students. Mosia, who is the vice-principal for student life at the University of Pretoria and a former chair of the Council on Higher Education, said after having spoken to all members of the executive management, “it was striking how despondent the team was”. “The Unisa management environment appears to be one where there is little trust, and no collective vision and support. Instead, it is a situation where there is suspicion, poor communication and the focus is on individual survival and how to protect one’s position. They are treading very lightly as they walk on eggshells fearing for their jobs.” He was scathing of LenkaBula, stating: “There is a tendency on the part of the VC to blame subordinates for governance failures rather than taking responsibility herself as an ethical leader should be doing.” Details of LenkaBula’s involvement in the renovations at her official residence, Cloghereen, are laid bare in a document written by the registrar, Prof Steward Mothata, who said she telephoned senior staff at night and sent them WhatsApp messages “telling them what to do”. In his 308-page report, Mosia found that the university splashed out more than R285,000 on curtains for LenkaBula’s official residence, while an outside company, which was appointed later to compare prices, came up with a quote of R20,630. Mosia said R8,000 was claimed for training on how to use a vacuum cleaner, despite only the staircase being carpeted. The rest of the floors in the house were either tiled or had wooden floors. In an interview with him, LenkaBula denied she had been involved in operational processes, except “for expressing disquiet about procurement that was not value for money. “On the contrary, staff who were given instructions confirmed that the VC wanted certain brand (Bosch) appliances, curtains, refrigerator and numerous others.” Mosia stated that after having also heard LenkaBula’s version, he was inclined “to conclude that the VC did indeed participate in the procurement process to a larger extent than what she is professing”. Despite more than R3m spent on refurbishments, “the VC has yet to move into her official residence since her appointment in January 2021”. The Sunday Times has seen a document, dated September 2021, indicating that senior officials in human resources and institutional development recommended to the council that LenkaBula be paid an allowance of R61,375 a month from January 2021 “until such time she can move into her official residence”. Mosia said salary increases granted to the tune of R190m a year, which included R14m to increase the staff complement in LenkaBula’s office, “represent a gross violation of sound governance principles”. Three personal assistants in LenkaBula’s office received back pay of R2.9m dating back 15 years, which she approved, according to Mosia. In a letter to Maboa, dated May 12, Nzimande appealed to the university and council “to engage with the findings and recommendations of the report, with a view of making meaningful and thorough-going inputs”. LenkaBula and Maboa declined to comment. On Monday, Unisa confirmed receiving the report from Nzimande and indicated it had been given 14 days to respond.