UKZN academic gets PhD back

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Dr Nobubele Potwana. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad

Durban - After being stripped of a PhD that “meant the world” to her two years ago, University of KwaZulu-Natal senior lecturer Nobubele Potwana, 61, finally had cause to celebrate on Friday when she could once again call herself Dr Potwana.

She won her case after Durban High Court Acting Judge Mahendra Chetty found that the university’s senate had no legal authority to revoke her degree in November 2011 – six years after it was conferred on her – or even appoint a fourth examiner to review her thesis.

But on Sunday all Potwana felt was numb.

“I’m not excited,” she said. “I’ve taken a beating over these past few years, and I don’t know if I have it in me to be excited.”

On Friday, agreeing with submissions made by her counsel, advocate Kemp J Kemp, when the matter was argued in November last year, the judge said he was of the view that, “other than for cases of fraud and misconduct and material error”, the university could not lawfully revoke a degree.

The judgment is important because it is the first to deal with the issue in South Africa.

The university took away her degree, citing a “compromised academic process”, but never alleging fraud, after Potwana and her supervisor, Pumela Msweli-Mbanga, were acquitted of criminal charges of corruption relating to the award of the degree.

It was at this point that the university appointed a new examiner to probe her thesis.

He recommended that she make some amendments to it, which she refused to do, saying the university was trying to “resuscitate the allegations” and was acting with malice.

Judge Chetty referred in his judgment to several “peripheral” issues raised by the university for which there was no evidence and appeared only to be an attempt to portray Potwana in a bad light.

He ordered the university to pay Potwana’s legal costs, including the costs of two senior counsel who had represented her.

Potwana said her PhD had taken “a lot of hard work” and was a source of pride to her.

“I was never married. I never got the title of ‘Mrs’, so I decided I would give myself a title,” she said.

She joined the university’s School of Management in 2006, and said education was her passion. She left a high-paying management position at Transnet to take up lecturing.

 

Before her degree was revoked, and throughout the court proceedings, Potwana found herself embroiled in “bitter” internal politics, but continued to work, and said she enjoyed the support of many of her colleagues.

 But the court proceedings took their toll on her.

“The worst of my worries were financial,” she said. “That, in turn, affected my emotions and my health.”

 Potwana retired from her position at the end of last year.

She has been keeping herself busy assisting students with their theses.

She planned to spend time with her family and to write a book on her experience.

“But first I want to work through the anger I feel towards the university,” she said.

A civil matter, in which Potwana was suing the university for defamation, was ongoing, she said. 

The university was unavailable for comment on Sunday.

The Mercury


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