Gloves off as the Unisa registrar fights back

Registrar of the University of South Africa Professor Steward Mothata is accused of sexual harassment and abuse of power by the former Deputy Director of Records Management. Picture: Twitter

Registrar of the University of South Africa Professor Steward Mothata is accused of sexual harassment and abuse of power by the former Deputy Director of Records Management. Picture: Twitter

Published Jun 30, 2023


Johannesburg - Unisa registrar Professor Steward Mothata, who yesterday filed an application to the Labour Court challenging his dismissal, has accused Unisa vice-chancellor (VC) Professor Puleng LenkaBula of unfairly terminating his five-year contract this week.

Mothata joins more than five senior members of staff who have either resigned or had their contracts terminated in a similar fashion since last year.

Early this month, The Star reported that certain council members informed the Independent Assessor, Professor Themba Mosia, of bullying tactics by the VC.

“We also want to inform you that some of us did tell Mosia that there might be intimidation and targeting of individuals who provided evidence of corrupt activities. The VC is accountable to no one. She does as she pleases,” the members said.

However, it would seem Mothata, who has also spoken out about Unisa’s council being unable to meet its quorum, has been dismissed due to his resistance to toe the line against LenkaBula’s acts of intimidation, also flagged by the assessor’s report.

Mothata’s dismissal comes a few days after he made an application to the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, seeking to have his suspension declared “invalid and unconstitutional” on an urgent basis.

Mothata, through his legal representative, advocate Modidima Mannya, had also argued that the current Unisa council, under the leadership of chairperson James Maboa, was not properly constituted since it did not meet its quorum to take decisions on behalf of the embattled institution.

Yesterday, he approached the Labour Court in Johannesburg to hear his matter on an urgent basis, with an application set for July 7.

“Kindly take note that the applicant will bring an application in the above honourable court on July 7, or (as) soon as counsel for the applicant may be heard for the order in the following terms: ‘declaring the termination of the employment of the applicant unlawful and of no force or effect ... directing the first defendant (Unisa) and second defendant (LenkaBula) to restore the applicant in his position on the same terms and conditions as prior to the termination,” Mothata’s lawyers said in their application.

Early this month, Unisa confirmed that it had placed Mothata on a 90-day precautionary suspension pending an investigation into his behaviour.

However, on Wednesday, in a letter dated Tuesday, June 27, signed by LenkaBula, Mothata’s suspension was extended to a dismissal after his contract was terminated. The termination comes barely a month after he was placed under a 90-day precautionary suspension on June 5. “On June 5, 2023, Unisa put you on precautionary suspension for several breaches of the employee disciplinary code (EDC), which constituted gross misconduct ... Further, on June 12, the university made an appeal to you to comply with your conditions of suspension after your initial failure to do so. Even after this appeal, you continued to ignore the university and/or comply with the obligations you have towards the university,” read the letter.

According to the letter of termination, Mothata failed to explain himself to the university and failed to give reasons why he should not be fired.

“Not only have you shown serious contempt for authority ... but it seems to escape your mind that you are facing serious allegations of contravening university policies and regulations. It is clear from the foregoing that the relationship of trust has irretrievably broken down ... I regret to inform you that the university has decided to terminate your employment services effective immediately,” LenkaBula stated.

In the past, Mothata has argued that his suspension had nothing to do with accusations against him, but had to do with some of the issues he had taken up against LenkaBula, which were part of an alleged “witch-hunt” against him.

Mothata, in his affidavit attached to the documents to the Labour Court, also cites HR head Phumzile Dlamini as the third respondent. He said he was employed by the university on a five-year contract that expired in 2025 and has a renewal clause that says other employees in his situation can be subjected to the same bizarre treatment he has suffered.

“It is clear that other executives who signed employment contracts with an arbitration clause such as mine will be subjected to this bizarre interpretation by the second respondent and will suffer the same fate. Already the second respondent has terminated the employment of staff without any due process,” he said.

He added that the law allows him to be treated with respect, equality, and human dignity.

At the time of Mothata’s suspension, Unisa through a statement said: “Please note that this is a matter between Professor Mothata and the university and the standing practice in the university is not to discuss such matters in the public domain, including through the media”.

The VC has chosen not to respond to the media concerning the Assessor’s report or Professor Mothata’s suspension and now axing.

The Star