Blade Nzimande slated for 'inaction on graft, sexual harassment' claims at university

Higher education, science and technology minister Blade Nzimande said his department wanted to be ruthless when dealing with corruption, but he was guided by the rule of law.
Higher education, science and technology minister Blade Nzimande said his department wanted to be ruthless when dealing with corruption, but he was guided by the rule of law.  
Image: Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS

Higher education, science and technology minister Blade Nzimande has come under fire in parliament for “failing to act” on allegations of graft and sexual harassment at two universities in Limpopo.

Nzimande appeared before the portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology on Tuesday.

He was invited to elaborate on the appointment of Prof Peter Mbati as Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU) vice-chancellor amid allegations of sexual harassment against him, dating back to his time at the University of Venda.

Nzimande was also asked about allegations of poor governance and graft at the university.

The committee was not happy with the report-back. Its chairperson, Philly Mapula, said the department had presented a justification on why it could not intervene at SMU.

He said there were cases with clear information to intervene, but the department did not, even when it found the SMU had not complied with requirements to set out plans to spend R1bn on infrastructure.

Mapula said not only did SMU spend the money without giving plans to the department, it also misused the money.

“All I get from this report is a hands-off approach. 'Don't do anything, don't say anything. If you are presented with allegations, write to the university, the university responds and  that's it.' That's what I get,” said Mapula.

He criticised the department's inaction after former SMU vice-chancellor Prof Chris de Beer made a presentation to Nzimande about serious allegations of involvement by members of the council in procurement at the institution.

“I am very, very disappointed by this. The former accounting officer says you have a case of the involvement of councillors in the procurement and supply chain. There may be many other things happening that are wrong in the institution, but still there is no appetite for the appointment of an assessor,” said Mapula.

He also slammed the University of Venda for ignoring a report from the Commission on Gender Equality which made findings against Mbati on allegations of sexual harassment.  

“One of the recommendations is that the minister must act in line with the sexual harassment policy. And what happens? There is a letter written to the university by the minister, but almost two months after the high court in South Gauteng confirmed the recommendation of the gender commission, the council immediately clears Prof Mbati,” said Mapula.

He said there was never a clear process outlined on how Mbati was cleared. Mapula said he was highly disappointed by how the matter was handled.

ANC MP Jane Mananiso agreed with Mapula, saying there was a lack of political will.

“In this country there are reports about people being sexually harassed for marks and so on. If we don't take any decision regarding what is happening at SMU, it will give the wrong message that we are not serious and committed to deal with unethical conduct and behaviour in these particular institutions,” said Mananiso.

Portfolio committee member Nompendulo Mkhatshwa also criticised the hiring of Mbati without him being properly cleared of the sexual harassment allegations.

“No-one is going to feel comfortable working in an environment where there is uncertainty on whether someone has sexually violated a colleague,” said Mkhatshwa.

She said the call for intervention by the portfolio committee was to ensure there was trust and a safe space for learning and teaching at the university.

Nzimande, however, denied that he was not taking action regarding SMU.

“Chair, I  want to correct an impression that may be wrongly formed here, as if I am a minister who is not acting on matters of irregularity, corruption and so on. There is no truth in that. You may not be happy with what we have presented, but what we have presented is action we have taken,” said Nzimande.

He said his department wanted to be ruthless when dealing with corruption, but he was guided by the rule of law.  

“From what I am hearing, there is some appetite to reopen the case of sexual harassment. The matters excised by the court were precisely the matters that did not find Prof Mbati to be guilty, but I am subject to correction,” said Nzimande.

He said he had no problem with the sexual harassment matter being reopened by the portfolio committee.

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