Durban 240114 Dr Nobubele Potwana had her Doctorate taken away from her by the University of Kwazulu-Natal. She has just won the case to have it reinstated. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad
Durban 240114 Dr Nobubele Potwana had her Doctorate taken away from her by the University of Kwazulu-Natal. She has just won the case to have it reinstated. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad

Varsity pushes to strip PhD

By Sharika Regchand Time of article published Aug 4, 2015

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Durban - The University of KwaZulu-Natal is fighting to scrap a former lecturer’s PhD degree, saying she had not complied with academic standards and therefore was not entitled to it.

Argument was heard on Monday before a full Bench in the Pietermaritzburg High Court on whether or not to set aside a Durban High Court ruling last year which went in favour of retired senior lecturer Nobubele Potwana, 62.

The court had set aside the university’s decision to revoke her degree in November 2011, six years after it was conferred, on April 14, 2005.

Acting Judge Mahendra Chetty had found that the university’s senate had no legal authority to revoke Potwana’s degree or even appoint a fourth examiner to review her thesis.

He was also of the view that “other than cases of fraud or misconduct and material error, the university could not have lawfully revoked the applicant’s degree”.

For Potwana, advocate Kemp J Kemp SC argued on Monday that her degree was questioned when she got caught in the “crossfire” of an “extremely bitter” dispute in which attempts were made to prove that Phumela Msweli-Mbanga was guilty of acting disreputably.

Msweli-Mbanga was Potwana’s supervisor and academic mentor.

The “war” resulted from allegations that Msweli-Mbanga had an intimate relationship with a doctoral student who was also the chief financial officer of the university.

There had also been a claim by her estranged husband that she had awarded degrees to students in exchange for payment. She in turn made “serious allegations” against the university’s then vice-chancellor, Malegapuru Makgoba.

In the fallout, Potwana’s qualification came to be questioned, said Kemp.

He added that the university had called a fourth examiner to re-examine the thesis. He reported that significant parts had to be rewritten. This was after the thesis was accepted and after she had made the changes and amendments which met the original three examiners’ requirements.

Advocate Michael Smithers SC, for the university, said Msweli-Mbanga had placed Potwana on the graduation roll knowing she did not comply with academic standards to graduate. She had been told to make changes and amendments to her thesis, by the fourth examiner, but had not done so. “She should have attended to the changes but elected not to do so.”

Smithers said the process of getting the degree was corrupted by Potwana and her supervisor.

Both women were criminally charged with fraud and corruption in relation to the degree, but were later acquitted.

Only after the acquittal was the fourth examiner appointed to probe her thesis.

Smithers said: “When a university confers a degree on one, it certifies to the world the recipient’s educational achievement and fulfilment of the university’s academic standards. Compliance with all the university standards is thus essential.”

He said the facts established that the university acted within its right to revoke the doctoral degree and that it followed due process.

Judgment was reserved.

The Mercury

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