UKZN spokesperson Normah Zondo said the university wished to emphasise that it was legally and ethically obliged to conduct the investigation to protect the integrity of its academic excellence. Picture: Shayne Robinson
UKZN spokesperson Normah Zondo said the university wished to emphasise that it was legally and ethically obliged to conduct the investigation to protect the integrity of its academic excellence. Picture: Shayne Robinson

UKZN spends millions to protect investigator who received death threats

By Charlene Somduth Time of article published Feb 19, 2021

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Durban - Avril Sahadew lived a life of luxury while investigating allegations of corruption at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

Sahadew joined the university in 2012 after having worked as a forensic investigator for two large auditing firms in South Africa.

In 2016, UKZN began investigations into what is now known as Operation Clever. The aim of the investigation was, among other things, to look into allegations that seats at the university’s medical school were being sold.

Within a few months she took over the investigation. According to the university, shortly after this Sahadew received threats to her life. The university has not provided details of the threats except to say that they were found to be credible by the police.

The university has spent R73.5 million on Operation Clever.

Most of this money (just over R42m) was spent from August 2017 to May 2020 protecting Sahadew. It included the costs of guards, body guards, cars and a safehouse.

The university paid one security company for all these services although the name of the company has not been revealed.

According to documents, for just under three years (August 2017 until May 2020) Sahadew was provided free accommodation by the university at the safehouse. It cost the university about R60 000 a month and included cleaning services and maintenance, as well as utility bills, like electricity and water.

The safehouse was guarded by two Grade C armed guards. One was on duty during the day and the other at night. Each guard cost the university R16 200 per shift.

Sahadew was driven around in vehicles provided by the security company and paid for by the university. At her disposal were a BMW 320i, a Toyota D4D Double Cab, and a Golf GTI. It cost the university between R1 650 and R1 850 a day for a car.

Over and above this, Sahadew was assigned a driver and at least one bodyguard. There were two shifts. Initially the day shift cost the university R5 700 a person a day, while the night shift cost the university R11 400 a person a shift.

The expenses are contained in documents the university was forced to release to Visham Panday, who styles himself as an anti-corruption activist.

Panday went to the High Court where he filed an application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act in 2018. In court papers, Panday said he was dedicated to exposing corruption and assisting the voiceless who lacked the means to seek truth and justice.

A few weeks ago, Judge Mahendra Chetty ordered the university to release the information. In his judgment, Judge Chetty said that in respect of both the costs of the safehouse and the bodyguards’ protection, he saw no reason why the university could not provide details of the costs incurred and the duration of the services rendered.

“I cannot find any lawful basis for refusing to disclose the costs of Operation Clever. The applicant (Panday), as stated earlier, need not show a reason for wanting this information.

“However, I think that such disclosure would promote the interests of transparency and accountability, especially in times when students are advocating against escalating fees and where the university, by its own admission in these papers, is operating under strained resources.”

Judge Chetty said there was nothing before him that suggested Panday had embarked on the process to cause the university financial or other prejudice.

“The disclosure of information by public bodies serves to embolden the crucial threads of accountability and responsiveness, and advances the strength of our democracy. Non-disclosure, without good reason, only serves to undermine the reputation and effectiveness of public bodies and provides fertile ground for rumour and speculation."

This week Panday told the POST that after going through the papers he felt vindicated.

“I am going to ask the minister of higher education to investigate this matter further. How is it that one individual was taken such good care of by the university and produced nothing, yet there are hundreds of students who need assistance and the university claims it does not have money?”

Meanwhile, several people within the private security industry said the university paid too much for the security detail. However, none of them wanted to be named.

The owner of one private security company said a Grade C armed officer's salary was about R15 000 a month, while a bodyguard and driver could earn between R25000 and R35000 a month depending on their experience.

The Department of Higher Education has now asked UKZN to provide a formal report into the matter.

Ishmael Mnisi, a spokesperson for the Department of Higher Education, said Minister Blade Nzimande had asked UKZN to provide a formal report so as to understand the work undertaken in support of the investigation.

“The report will include the terms of reference, costs, and the duration (period) over which the investigation took place,” he said.

Philani Mncwabe, the secretary-general of the Students Representative Council at UKZN, said they wanted full disclosure on Operation Clever.

“We will approach the university at our next council meeting to find out what the money was spent on. The SRC is in talks with the university to have 50% of student debt from last year waived. Many students are struggling financially due to Covid-19.”

The POST approached Sahadew for comment, but she referred queries to the university.

In her statement last week, UKZN spokesperson Normah Zondo said the university wished to emphasise that it was legally and ethically obliged to conduct the investigation to protect the integrity of its academic excellence, its reputation and to comply with the code of good governance.

Zondo said: “Mrs Sahadew, the lead forensic investigator, was provided with a safehouse and bodyguards as a result of threats to her life. An extensive audit was done, involving inter alia the SAPS, into the threats and they were found to be credible, justifying her protection.”

She said that while UKZN was extremely keen to expose those involved in corruption, and had done so to the full extent that it could internally, it must now await the outcome and decisions of the police and prosecuting authorities regarding any criminal prosecutions.

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