SOUTH AFRICA: Disturbances at three universities

Three universities of technology have been hitting the headlines in South Africa. At one, a top administrator used qualifications obtained from a bogus university to land the vice-chancellorship. At another, the vice-chancellor has had his leadership style questioned and at the third students went on the rampage over government loans.

The appointment of Professor Johnny Molefe (pictured) as Vice-chancellor of Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria, raised a storm as various authorities questioned the criteria that the university council followed in making the appointment.

Molefe is accused of obtaining a degree from an unregistered university in the Caribbean. He has been working as acting vice-chancellor at TUT since 2010 when Errol Tyobeka, his predecessor, was fired after a breakdown in his relationship with the university.

Molefe has a bachelor of commerce law degree, an MBA and a master of technology degree, as well as a diploma in education. But he is also the holder of a PhD in business administration from 'St George University International' in the Bahamas, West Indies.

There is the accredited St George's University on the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, and the fly-by-night St George's University International in the nearby Bahamas. The latter institution has since closed down.

In 2002, the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) temporarily granted a certificate confirming the authenticity of Molefe's doctorate.

But Joe Samuels, SAQA's Deputy Executive Officer, said the erroneous certificate was revoked in a registered letter to Molefe in 2007, although he never returned the dishonoured certificate. Samuels admitted SAQA had made an honest mistake.

Four years later, Molefe used the certificate to apply for the top job at TUT.

Gwebs Qonde, Acting Director-general of South Africa's Department of Higher Education and Training, told Business Day newspaper that his department had not been informed that TUT had a new vice-chancellor.

John Volmink, appointed last month as the CEO of the South African Education Department's National Education Evaluation and Development Unit, headed a task team investigating Molefe's qualifications. He said his team found no local or international body willing to accredit his doctorate.

But Robert Matlhare, chair of TUT's senior selection committee and a council member, said he had personally seen Molefe's doctoral thesis. He claimed five international universities were willing to accredit the doctorate, including China's South East University.

Junita Kloppers-Lourens, higher education shadow minister for the South African opposition, the Democratic Alliance, said that Molefe should produce his doctoral thesis to prove he had been duped. "Furthermore, serious questions have been raised about Molefe's financial management skills - his name appears as a bad debtor at a number of credit bureaus and he is reportedly seeking debt counselling," she said in a statement.

As debates on the appointment of Molefe intensified, the Vice-chancellor of the Central University of Technology (CUT), Professor Thandwa Mthembu, wrote an opinion piece in Business Day saying that the decision by the TUT council to appoint a vice-chancellor in the face of revelations that his doctorate did not exist was a case of violating common purpose, integrity and mutual respect.

"In this way, the integral core of all of our universities is being violated," Mthembu said.
He strongly advised that Molefe's appointment be withdrawn.

"He should be fired from the university for possessing a fake degree, no matter what substantive position he may be holding and regardless of whether his remaining qualifications are good enough for it; the minister should disband the TUT council and appoint an administrator to lift this great university out of this morass. That way, the integrity of all our universities would be restored."

TUT has more than 60,000 students, making it South Africa's biggest residential university.

It was in the context of his scathing comments about Molefe that attention turned to Mthembu's own leadership of the Bloemfontein-based CUT.

Kloppers-Lourens said Mthembu must step aside to pave the way for a probe into the conduct of the CUT administration. Her call comes at a time when CUT has elected a new council, which assumes office facing a dilemma over the legality of decisions sanctioned by the previous assembly, which was deemed "illegitimate".

The institution's administration was left in limbo last November when all councillors, except three ministerial appointees, voluntarily stepped down after legal advice indicated their election in 2008 was irregular.

Said Kloppers-Lourens: "Mthembu's qualifications may be above suspicion, but his management style, which includes manipulation of the university council and the victimisation of members of staff who do not tow his line, has been seriously questioned."

A report by audit firm KPMG, appointed to conduct a forensic investigation into allegations of maladministration, financial irregularities, gross neglect and contraventions of CUT rules and regulations, among other things, has recently been completed, she added.

Mthembu was inaugurated as the CUT Vice-chancellor in May 2007 and his tenure has allegedly been characterised by the flight of senior staff members, with 23 labour disputes pending.

Kloppers-Lourens suggested it may be advisable to suspend Mthembu from his post until all investigations into maladministration regarding him, his management and the council, of which he is a member, have been completed.

"It is only right that he and his university should be measured by the same standards that he is using to measure TUT and its vice-chancellor," she said.

At the end of July another institution, the Durban University of Technology (DUT), had to obtain a court interdict against student representative council members and other student protestors who were pressing demands for student loans.

All classes had to be suspended at the Durban campuses for a week as students went on the rampage, demanding increased financial aid and raising issues concerning campus security and food quality.

Among other demands students wanted the university to provide branded condoms and sanitary towels to student hostels. The institution responded that this would be costly and unsustainable.

DUT leaders held talks with higher education officials after the week of violent protests, to find a solution to the problem.

"The university management had to prohibit the continuation of protests, violence, intimidation of students and staff, damage to university property, and the invasion of classes," said Alan Khan, senior director of corporate affairs.

DUT Vice-chancellor, Professor Ahmed Bawa, said the university would work with police and its own security officers to enforce the interdict.

"It's important that the SRC realises that we need to get back into the lecture rooms, back to research and back to studying. Violence is not the answer and we will not tolerate it," he said.

DUT now has 8,300 students receiving National Students Financial Aid Scheme packages, which amounts to more than R200 million. But the government had not provided funding for bachelor of technology studies - only for education and nursing.

"Unfortunately, this means that there are currently no extra financial aid funds available for other students," said Khan.

Khan told University World News last week that the academic programme resumed on Wednesday without any disruptions, and management was pleased that students were back in class.

"The university has an academic recovery plan in place that will ensure, despite the loss of time due to the violent student protests, that the academic calendar will be successfully completed this year,' he said.