South Africa: How Infighting, Corruption Overshadow Tertiary Education In South Africa

South Africa: How Infighting, Corruption Overshadow Tertiary Education In South Africa

South Africa: How Infighting, Corruption Overshadow Tertiary Education In South Africa

Cape Town — Some of the world’s most renowned universities and coming out tops in Africa, find themselves in the news – not for academic achievement but for in-fighting, corruption and even murder. Vice chancellors at South Africa’s universities hog the headlines and movements like Fees Must Fall  strive to highlight the plight of university students battling to find funding and accommodation to complete their studies at the University of Cape Town, University of Fort Hare, University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch University.

University of Cape Town (UCT):

UCT is known as Africa’s top tertiary institution, ranking 267th worldwide on the Center for World University Rankings 2023 , and no. 1 on the continent for five ranking bodies.

In 2018, Mamokgethi Phakeng took the reins from Professor Max Price and became the second black woman to be appointed as vice chancellor, after Dr Mamphele Ramphele’s appointment in 1996. Phakeng was at the helm of UCT’s transformation drive 2030. In a 2019 statement setting out Vision 2030, Phakeng said that “excellence, on its own, could not be the only goal for an institution such as UCT”.

Although the university made progress in several areas – including the launch of the online high school (despite unfavourable reports from parents in 2022, IOL reports), her tenure could for the most part be described as tumultuous. A 2020 report by UCT Ombud Zetau Makamandela-Mguqulwa which was published online despite the UCT legal department advising against it – described Phakeng as a “bully who ruled by fear” – and “listed her enemies in a black book”. In response, Phakeng defended her reputation, accusing the Ombud of acting in bad faith, disregarding the law and violating her rights.

The UCT Ombud was threatened with suspension by the university after she refused to amend her report, according to IOL. UCT said the relationship between Makamandela-Mququlwa and Phakeng had broken down.

Governance issues at UCT saw several senior staffers stepping down over the years. Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation Loretta Feris left her post in April 2021, 10 months before the end of her term. Soon after, Linda Ronnie, the dean of commerce, asked to be released from her post in 2021 too. After Feris’ departure, the then-head of UCT’s convocation, Professor Eddy Maloka, announced that he too would resign, citing concerns about the choice of Feris’ interim successor, Martin Hall, a white man, News24 reports.

The departure of UCT’s deputy vice chancellor for teaching and learning Lis Lange left in May 2022. Lange’s sudden departure brought Phakeng into the spotlight when she and Babalwa Ngonyama, chairperson of the UCT council, were accused of misleading the council on the real reasons for Lange’s departure.

Phakeng remained in UCT’s employ as professor in the School of  Education and was to retire on March 30, 2024. However on March 3, 2023, she elected to take early retirement as a professor. Her package amounts to R12 million plus additional benefits. Meanwhile, UCT also accepted the resignation of Council Chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama, who together with Phakeng, found themselves at the centre of an independent judicial investigation into the governance crisis at the institution.

The interim Vice Chancellor is Emeritus Professor Daya Reddy.

On July 3, 2023, Phakeng welcomed the Public Protector’s findings that UCT was correct in not awarding a PhD to Adam Andani who was accused of plagiarising parts of his thesis. Phakeng told her followers on social media: “This is the case that caused the fall-out between me and the Ombud who hit back by arguing that I am a bully. Once again, I was correct. Call me whatever you like, but no Ombud has the authority to instruct any VC to pass any student who has plagiarised a PhD thesis.”

University of South Africa (Unisa):

Unisa is Africa’s biggest open distance learning institution, and celebrated 150 years of educating on June 26, 2023.

A report into the affairs of Unisa, commissioned by Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande, recommended that the university be placed under administration. This was after claims of maladministration, as well as tender irregularities, allegedly involving the university’s vice chancellor and principal, Puleng LenkaBula. The report compiled by Professor Themba Mosia, said millions of rands were misused under the watch of both the university’s council and management.

The report found that Unisa was plagued by governance issues since 2016. It included the flouting of procurement processes, irregular appointment of staff members, as well as huge salary increases. Mosia recommended that Unisa be placed under full administration, where both the council and management will be relieved of their duties. The Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande will consider the recommendations of the report, and is expected to make a decision soon.

Unisa is Africa’s biggest open distance learning institution, and celebrated 150 years on June 26, 2023.

University of Pretoria (UP):

The sudden resignation of the University of Pretoria’s first black vice chancellor Tawane Kupe on June 13, 2023, led Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande to request a full report on the matter, News24 reports. Kupe was embroiled in several sexual harassment cases and in 2016, was found guilty and issued with a final warning during his tenure as vice principal and vice chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand. It was found that on his appointment as Vice Chancellor at the UP in January 2019, he failed to mention this case.

While vice chancellor at UP, he was accused of sexual harassment and nepotism. The anonymous email in 2022, set an independent probe in motion and he was cleared in 2023. However UP only then became aware of the allegations against him at Wits. Meanwhile the academic also stepped down from his position as chairperson of amaBhungane as more details of the cases emerge, according to IOL.

University of Fort Hare:

The University of Fort Hare has always been synonymous with well known politicians such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo. It has for the past number of years though, been clouded in controversy with reports of fraudulent qualifications being doled out, allegedly to politicians. Vice Chancellor of the institution, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, who was accused of “targeting politicians” became a target himself in an attack in which his bodyguard Mbonele Vesele and the university’s fleet manager Petrus Roets were murdered, IOL reports. It is alleged that a U.S.$276,000 bounty was offered as payment for the vice chancellor’s death.

Police investigations into those behind the series of attacks on University employees are continuing. Five people have been killed at the university so far. More fraudulent activity came to light recently when Professor Edwin Ijeoma originally from Nigeria and the school of public administration head, was placed under under suspension by the university for the illegal registration of axed health MEC Sindiswa Gomba for an honours degree in public administration when she was not entitled to register for postgraduate studies. Ijeoma has since appeared in court on another matter involving a car that he took from the university without permission. He also had his South African citizenship revoked, after he allegedly entered into a bigamous marriage with a South African woman to become a naturalised citizen. There is also an accusation that Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane was enrolled for a Master’s degree in public administration, for which he allegedly did not qualify. Mabuyane managed to obtain a court order to exclude himself from a Special Investigations Unit investigation into Fort Hare, despite the SIU assertion that they found prima facie evidence of fraud, corruption and maladministration, Daily Maverick reports.

University of Stellenbosch:

Stellenbosch University has for some time, been embroiled in the issue around its language policy in lectures – particularly for black students.

Now, Rector and Vice Chancellor Wim De Villiers who took up the position in 2015, after the sudden passing away of Professor Russel Botman in 2014, was accused of nepotism and of misusing his position at the university. The university’s convocation leader Advocate Jan Heunis reportedly wants De Villiers to resign and has divided the convocation, who in turn want Heunis removed.

The university was also embroiled in racist incidents, including that of a white student Theuns Du Toit who urinated on black student Babalo Ndwayana’s belongings. In November 2022, Judge Sisi Khampepe released her report after her inquiry into these allegations, according to Eyewitness News. Du Toit was expelled from the university.

At the time, the university’s Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Wim de Villers, said the findings of the Khampepe Commission were “a tipping point” for the institution. De Villiers has since been cleared of nepotism charges, IOL reports.

With governance and other issues taking up so much time at tertiary institutions, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande appears to be having his hands full trying to keep order and control.