I am only interested in the truth, says Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, who took on UCT's bigwigs and council members when they tried to suppress her damning report on goings-on at the institution.
I am only interested in the truth, says Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, who took on UCT's bigwigs and council members when they tried to suppress her damning report on goings-on at the institution.

Ombuds play a positive role in tertiary education

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Sep 7, 2021

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I am only interested in the truth, says Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, who took on UCT's bigwigs and council members when they tried to suppress her damning report on goings-on at the institution.

Edwin Naidu

Universities are natural breeding grounds for conflict where a lot of bad treatment, conflict and retaliation for speaking up takes place “below the radar”, but dispute resolution steps can have a positive impact and ensure justice without having to seek relief from the courts, said former University of Cape Town ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa.

“They (universities) should also be a place where breakthroughs can take place due to the open nature to all kinds of engagements. But in their openness they can also be closed and silencing due to there being a bureaucratic nature,” said Makamandela-Mguqulwa.

“Ombuds have a positive role to play in the tertiary education space,” she said.

“We are a conscience of the institutions we serve, thereby nudging them towards the principles of fairness and good administration that they themselves promised,” she said.

Quoting United Nations Ombudsman, John Barkat, she said: “To some people we represent the true scales of justice, weighing both sides of disputes and helping to facilitate solutions that are acceptable to all. I must add that these solutions are often elegant, well thought through and non-invested,” she said.

Addressing guests last week during the Higher Education Resource Services South Africa (HERS-SA) month-long webinars addressing gender issues, Makamandela-Mguqulwa said while many are silenced by fear, ombuds are given a voice.

“So, we cannot be silent. As an ombud, we have the courage of our conviction to stand up and be counted (even if just by our visitors). In the final analysis it is a duty of ombuds in their respective environments to pave the way for future generations to taste the sweet promise of fairness in dealings, equality, dignity and justice for all,” she said.

She said currently there were only seven out of 26 universities with offices of an ombud.

They are the University of South Africa (Unisa), University of Johannesburg, University of Cape Town, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Tshwane University of Technology, Stellenbosch University and Nelson Mandela University.

Makamandela-Mguqulwa said the role of an ombud is to receive, investigate, and resolve complaints. “This function becomes doable in a system where a right to complain is securely embedded in a functional complaints management system.

“In dealing with complaints, the rules of natural justice alongside human rights must unfold. These are procedural requirements that give a person an opportunity to present her/his case before the administrator takes decisions and rules against bias or prejudice,” said Makamandela-Mguqulwa.

She added that there is no question of whether an organisation’s systems will fail on occasion, it is only a matter of where and when. Issues to consider, include how does one address issues that are blocked?

“Who in this audience, myself included, has not had a problem where it would have been helpful to talk with an experienced, knowledgeable, qualified individual ‘off the record’. Think about it, so anyone at any level can contact the ombud as a resource, thought partner, sounding board or personal coach and still maintain complete control of the issue,” she said.

Makamandela-Mguqulwa said institutions must invest time to educate stakeholders about the core principles of independence, fair outcomes and working outside of formal structures. “It is important that an Ombud is and are seen to be saving resources, be it time, relationships and litigation which is not only expensive but can be avoided through many of the ombudsing tools.”

She said some perceived the role of an ombud as someone handling complaints, while others viewed them as internal consultants who provide valuable feedback for management.

“To have an ombud is to accept that there will be a person giving feedback you may not like, but need,” she said.

Brightness Mangolothi, director of the Higher Education Resource Services South Africa (HERS-SA), said her organisation was established to give women a voice in HERS-SA allowing women in higher education to share their challenges and stories to allow for perspective again. At times we only need someone to listen and not judge women,” she said.

The aim of month-long webinars was to share and discuss partnerships on gender-based violence (GBV) and gender research and other initiatives; unpack the role of everyone on gender equality and female empowerment and encourage gender responsiveness.

Edwin Naidu writes for the Wits Justice Project (WJP).

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