Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati still has allegations of sexual harassment hanging over his head. Picture: Jacques Naude African News Agency (ANA)
Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati still has allegations of sexual harassment hanging over his head. Picture: Jacques Naude African News Agency (ANA)

Re-opening of old sexual harassment case leaves vice-chancellor seething

By Piet Mahasha Rampedi Time of article published Sep 27, 2020

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Sefako Makgatho University (SMU) vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati says the chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education and training, Phillemon Mapulane, has launched an unlawful judicial process to review the sexual harassment allegations of which he was cleared almost 10 years ago in a bid to smear his name and rescind his appointment.

Mbati also labelled the ANC MP as a bully who subjected him to a vindictive inquiry to review a case which had already been concluded in court instead of supporting him for having successfully fought corruption during his tenure as University of Venda (Univen) vice-chancellor between 2008 and 2018.

This comes after the portfolio committee launched an inquiry into the sexual harassment allegations against Mbati, raised by former Univen school of education dean Professor Sylvia Thidziambi Phendla-Tshivhase in 2011, despite the claims having been dismissed by various forums a few years ago.

In an official complaint sent to Speaker Thandi Modise two weeks ago, through his lawyers and copied to President Cyril Ramaphosa and Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande, Mbati accused Mapulane of trying to illegally review the court outcomes.

This included the police, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), Univen’s disciplinary hearing, the Appeals Committee of Univen Council, the Labour Court in Johannesburg, the Labour Court Appeal.

Mbati’s appointment as SMU rector in May was also endorsed by Nzimande, who said there was nothing irregular about it.

In its judgment delivered on October 12, 2017, the Labour Court dismissed Phendla-Tshivhase’s sexual harassment allegations, saying “given the evidence before me, I must accept Prof Mbati’s version that he did not sexually harass the applicant”.

“I am not convinced the applicant was subjected to a sexual harassment. Her version is replete with material inconsistencies and cannot be accepted by this court as being true,” said Judge Moshoana when delivering the judgment.

A Univen disciplinary process had also found Phendla-Tshivhase guilty of receiving gratification from a service provider following a forensic report into corruption at the university.

In the letter to Modise, Mbati’s lawyer Thamathama Chantel Dabish-Nthabeleni of law firm Dabishi-Nthambeleni Incorporated, said: “Our client subjected himself to the above institutions and their systems where he was cleared of these false allegations of sexual harassment.

“Where else can allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace be tested except through courts and the criminal justice system.

“It is therefore shocking that a court of law tested these allegations and found them to be without merit, now a parliamentary portfolio committee is instituting proceedings in terms of the rules of parliament effectively to review the pronouncements of the courts.”

Modise’s spokesperson Moloto Mothapo confirmed that “the Speaker has indeed received the complaint from the VC and she is attending to it”.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent this week, Mbati accused Mapulane of resuscitating old allegations against him in order to tarnish his image.

He said that the fact that Phendla-Tshivhase and four other former Univen officials who were fired for corruption and other crimes have been lined up as the committee’s “star witnesses”, was proof that Mapulane had ulterior motives.

The list of witnesses scheduled to appear before the committee including Phendla-Tshivhase are, former Univen registrar Khuliso Nemadzivhanani, former advancement officer Bali Makhado, former director in the office of the vice-chancellor Dr Clarence Tshitereke and former deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs Professor Xikombiso Mbhenyane.

Mbati said Mapulane’s process was unlawful because his committee had no powers to conduct a judicial review of cases.

“What we are bringing to the Speaker’s attention is that there is a process which is unlawful, which smacks of vindictiveness, which is unnecessary and brings my integrity into question. I also feel that I am being bullied.

“As a vice chancellor who ensured that there is no corruption at the university, what i had expected is that the portfolio committee should be working with me to ensure we minimise corruption. The same portfolio committee is bullying me for doing my job in fighting corruption and holding people accountable,” Mbati said.

“Mapulane also went on the radio and made a statement to the effect that I had been appointed whilst there was a cloud hanging over my head. That was not true.”

Mapulane denied all allegations levelled against him, saying his committee was fulfilling its oversight role after receiving a complaint from the Higher Education Transformation Network (HETN).

“Witnesses came forward after the committee publicly declared its intention to conduct this oversight inquiry and made submissions to the committee, including witnesses that vigorously support Professor Mbati. Therefore, the lame attempt by Prof Mbati to personalise the committee enquiry must be rejected with the contempt it deserves.

“There is no truth in the assertion that the chairperson of the committee is vindictive. For the record, the chairperson had never met, nor heard of Prof Mbati until after his appointment as the vice-chancellor of Sefako Makgatho University,” Mapulane said.

He added that HETN’s complaint included allegations of sexual harassment which were previously made against Mbati by Phendla-Tshivhase and how they were handled by Univen’s council, as well as the process of appointing him as SMU vice-chancellor.

After a preliminary investigation and following a meeting with the CGE, Mapulane said, his committee resolved to conduct an “oversight enquiry”.

He said the documents “reviewed” by the committee included the CGE’s report into the matter, the order of the South Gauteng High Court instructing Univen to implement its own sexual harassment policy, the Labour Court judgment, and the report of mediator Lavery Modise who was appointed by Univen to mediate in the sexual harassment dispute.

“Prof Mbati is a public official and is subject to the oversight role of Parliament. He must subject himself to the oversight enquiry as he has publicly said so in the past and if he so believes that there are no issues against him, the process will vindicate him.

“Why is he so strenuously fighting against being held to account, including on very serious allegations of mismanagement in the handling of infrastructure projects amounting to millions of rands?”

Mapulane confirmed that he told a radio station that Mbati had a cloud over his head, saying the statement was based on available information at the time.

Phendla-Tshivhase could not be reached as her phone rang unanswered.

Sunday Independent

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