Why the rush to appoint Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University VC?
Johannesburg - The appointment of Professor Peter Mbati as the new vice-chancellor (VC) of Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU) has raised eyebrows with many questioning the speed of the appointment.
Chairperson for the SMU council Maria Rambauli this week released a letter indicating Mbati had been appointed after a “rigorous and thorough process”.
“After a rigorous and thorough process, the council has appointed Professor Peter Mbati to the position of vice-chancellor at SMU, and he will commence employment with effect from June 1, 2020.
“Professor Mbati holds the following qualifications, among others: bachelor of education Honours (botany and zoology); Master of Science (parasitology) and Doctor of Philosophy (parasitology),” Rambauli said.
The process has, however, been questioned by unions and Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education, whose chairperson Philly Mapulane wrote a letter to Rambauli, questioning the process. In the letter, he questioned why the council made the appointment before appearing in front of the committee.
“Pursuant to our communication to have the university management and council appear before the portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology in March 2020, it has to come to my attention as the chairperson of the committee that the university council has processed the appointment of the new vice-chancellor during the lockdown period, while we still have an outstanding engagement,” Mapulane said.
“I was informed that the vice- chancellor will commence with his office duties from June 1, 2020. We would have wished to engage with the university on the numerous allegations of maladministration and governance challenges.
“However, due to unforeseen Covid-19 challenges and directives of President Ramaphosa as well the omission on the part of the committee secretariat to invite the council chairperson and deputy-chairperson, such engagement had to be deferred.”
The committee has given the university seven working days to provide a detailed report on the process of the appointment of the new vice-chancellor, the reasons the university was in a hurry to make the appointment during the lockdown and the resumé of the new vice-chancellor.
The SA Parastatal and Tertiary Institutions Union (Saptu) and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) previously questioned the council regarding interviews for the position. In a letter addressed to Rambauli, they questioned its timing.
“Numsa/Saptu-SMU would like to raise the following concerns:
“What is the hurry to conducting the interviews via Skype? The university currently has an acting vice-chancellor and his contract can be extended until after the Covid-19, to allow all stakeholders to participate in this process. According to the Constitution of South Africa, this position was supposed to have been gazetted, which in this case it did not follow that process and going ahead with this process will be violating the principle of transparency and fairness.”
Rambauli in her response indicated that she was comfortable that the recruitment process was materially per the policy and procedures.
“However, should you have evidence contrary to this it is important to have more details on your allegations so that this can be considered. In the interim, council is in the process of concluding the appointment of the vice-chancellor for the university,” she said.
The vice-chancellor elect was in the media between 2011-2017 after he was accused of sexual harassment while he was at the University of Venda. Professor Thidziambi Phendla laid a sexual harassment charge against him while she was the dean of education at the university.
She was fired after she had allegedly accepted a R1000 bribe to award a cleaning tender to a company called Clean Shop in 2008.
Phendla challenged her dismissal claiming Mbati had allegedly investigated and charged her after she refused to have sex with him. She was cleared in 2016 when the National Prosecuting Authority withdrew the charges against her.
He had indicated that Phendla’s alleged “impropriety” was uncovered in a forensic report by Deloitte. She, however, lost the case in the labour court in 2017.
Mbati yesterday said he had informed the panel that interviewed him of the sexual harassment charges. He said his name had been cleared following an investigation instituted by the council.
“Those were very serious allegations and the council decided to investigate them. It got an independent council and I was cleared. The report was forwarded to the university community and the media but was never published,” he said.
Mapulane told the Sunday Independent that the portfolio committee has requested the chair council to provide a report detailing how the decision for the appointment was reached. He added that it had also heard complaints from numerous sources regarding the process but would not be drawn to comment on what they centred around.
“We heard complaints but we don’t want to make comments before we get the report. We are worried because we asked them to come to Parliament but for some reason, we couldn’t engage with them because the acting vice-chancellor took a trip to London and upon his return was advised to self-quarantine for 14 days,” he said.
He added that the appearance before the committee was postponed to after the lockdown but it was surprised to see the appointment had been made during the lockdown.
“We were thinking that we would see them after the lockdown. But they rushed with the appointment while there were still some issues.
“It’s something that is worrying us because we don’t know why they were in such a hurry. While everybody else is observing the lockdown they are busy filling the vacancy while a person is acting in the position. We need them to give us the rationale behind doing that, what made them rush the process?” Mapulane said.
SMU spokesperson Dr Eric Pule defended the decision to appoint Mbati during the lockdown. He said the Disaster Management Act of 2002, under which lockdown regulations were promulgated, did not preclude the council of the university from discharging its responsibility in terms of the Higher Education Act, 101 of 1997 and the SMU Institutional Statute.
“The council of the university and its committees continue to carry out their responsibilities through virtual meeting platforms even during the lockdown period.
“Accordingly, since the appointment of a vice-chancellor is the responsibility of the council, there was nothing wrong in both fact and law with the council making the appointment during the lockdown period,” he said.
Pule added that the recruitment and selection process to fill the position of vice-chancellor started in the first half of 2019 after the university council received a letter of resignation from the then vice-chancellor, Professor Chris de Beer.
He said Rambauli would respond to the portfolio committee within the stipulated time frame.