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Johannesburg - One of President Jacob Zuma’s wives has turned down an offer by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande – a staunch ally of her husband – to serve on the council of the Vaal University of Technology.
Had Bongi Ngema-Zuma accepted, she would have served on the university’s 30-member council for the next four years.
On Saturday Ngema-Zuma’s spokesperson Lebo Madiba said the president’s wife appreciated the confidence shown in her by Nzimande, through his recommendation to serve on the council, but “due to other commitments, including the programmes of the foundation, she has indicated she will not be able to serve on the council,” Madiba said.
Ngema-Zuma is the founder and trustee of the Bongi Ngema-Zuma Foundation which creates awareness about diabetes, and is a member of the International Diabetes Federation.
University councils – like company boards – are the highest decision-making bodies at institutions.
According to the Higher Education Act, the minister is allowed to appoint up to five people on to a university council.
But a higher education sector insider who spoke to The Sunday Independent anonymously for fear of reprisals said that even though it was not illegal for Nzimande to appoint Ngema-Zuma based on her credentials, the decision was “morally and ethically wrong”.
“By virtue of having the spouse of the head of state in that council, the (other) people (on the council) might not be as forthright as possible in the presence of that person,” the insider said.
“Given the time and space, they might not be as open and frank as possible on issues without fear or favour. Ngema-Zuma’s presence might create a climate of fear in that council.”
The spousal office of the head of state should not be seen in any way to be engaging in the governance of universities, the insider added.
The department’s spokeswoman Kefilwe Makhanya said Nzimande had still not received a response from Ngema-Zuma on whether or not show would serve on the council.
“Ngema-Zuma’s name was among the names recommended by the business sector and she has not, at this stage, accepted the appointment,” she said.
Nzimande is expected to have the final list of appointees tomorrow.
Makhanya said businesses and social and political structures engaged with the minister and recommended people that they believed would provide strategic leadership that would ensure good governance at the university.
This is not the first time Nzimande has been accused of appointing allies in influential positions.
Last year, The Sunday Independent reported that in 2011 Nzimande appointed Phindile Nzimande, the wife of National Union of Mineworkers’ general secretary Frans Baleni, together with Nolwandle Mantashe, the wife of ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, to the boards of Setas.
Makhanya however disputed allegations that Ngema-Zuma’s recommendation – or the appointments of Phindile Nzimande and Mantashe could be seen as political patronage, saying that all appointments were made purely on merit.
“The sector needs legal minds of Phindile Nzimande’s calibre and the level of business knowledge and expertise that Mantashe and Ngema-Zuma possess,” she said.
Ngema-Zuma is a member of the African Heritage Society, an organisation led by businessman Mutumwa Mawere, who was recently arrested on allegations of defrauding the National Lotteries Board.
Ngema-Zuma, who has a Business Administration Bachelor’s degree and a diploma in marketing, has worked for various companies including Investment Bank, Standard Chartered, Merchant Bank and Deloitte & Touche.
Another prominent ministerial recommendation is that of SA Democratic Teachers Union general-secretary Mugwena Maluleke, a former maths teacher and principal of Rodney Mokoena Junior Secondary School in Pretoria.
Rabelani Dagada, an economist based at the Wits Business School who announced earlier this year that he had joined AfriForum, which is considered by many to be conservative, is also a member of the council.
He said he joined AfriForum because the ANC and its government had abandoned their non-racialism principles.
But Dagada was not appointed by Nzimande.
The new council, led by the Black Lawyers Association president Busani Mabunda, took over from the university administrator Professor Patrick FitzGerald this month.
FitzGerald took over authority of the council last year in July after Nzimande disbanded it following an investigation by an independent assessor which recommended that the council be dissolved.