The North Gauteng High Court has scolded Higher Education and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande for defying an order preventing him from appointing an administrator for the University of South Africa (Unisa)
The court in Pretoria also allowed the Unisa council to lodge a possible contempt of court challenge against Nzimande’s decision to place the institution under administration.
On Saturday, Nzimande announced two major changes to Unisa: he had dissolved the university’s council, and appointed former University of Johannesburg Vice-Chancellor Professor Ihron Rensburg as administrator for two years, starting on October 27.
On Wednesday, the high court in Pretoria agreed to hear Unisa’s application to force Nzimande to explain why his decision should not be considered contempt of court.
According to the court, Nzimande’s decision published in the Government Gazette is declared in breach of the order granted on August 24, 2023, and is unlawful and should be retracted.
“This is not a matter where an administrative decision still needs to be declared unlawful by a court of law, during which time a decision will remain operative. This is a matter where an intended (possible) administrative decision is already prohibited by an order, the violation of which is unlawful.
“The proper functioning and authority of the courts would be considerably undermined if functionaries are allowed to disregard direct orders with the conception and belief that its decision remains in place until it be declared unlawful again. Any and all actions that flow from this (already declared) unlawful decision is void and unenforceable, to be met with contempt of court proceedings,” ruled Acting Judge Andre Le Grange.
Le Grange said Nzimande’s view that the newly appointed administrator had to become a party to the proceedings was unnecessary.
The court granted Unisa’s council the right to approach the Deputy Judge President’s chambers to request a date for the hearing of Nzimande’s alleged contempt of court.
Unisa spokesperson Tommy Huma said they would release a statement on the latest developments.
Over the weekend, he stated that they had noted Nzimande’s announcement and found it premature.
“The university remains firm on the view that the minister’s announcement is premature and in contempt of the Court Order of 06 October 2023 by Justice Kooverjie, which interdicted him from placing the university under administration.
“The same Order reaffirms the earlier Order of Justice Adams of 24 August 2023, which ordered the minister not to take any decision pending the finalization of the interdict application by Unisa and the Minister’s undertaking not to take any decision until the application to review and set aside the Independent Assessor’s report would have been heard. This matter has not been finalized and is still before the court,” said Huma.
He said Nzimande’s timing was also off, considering that students were in the middle of the examinations.
“This is ill-timed and insensitive. Indeed, an anti-climax to the fact that the University has just graduated more than 50 thousand graduates with six ceremonies still to take place in this year. It must be made clear that the university is not fighting the minister and the responsibilities that he has; however, the university is also of the view that all citizens need to be guided by the prescripts of the law of the country,” said Huma.
Early this month, Unisa’s principal and vice-chancellor, Professor Puleng LenkaBula, said she acknowledged two reports that led to Nzimande’s decision to place the institution under administration.
Nzimande’s decision was based on a ministerial task team (MTT) report and an Independent Assessor’s report by University of Pretoria Professor Themba Mosia.
The primary purpose of the task team was to investigate the blockages that prevented effective recruitment, retention, and progression of South African black academics at universities in the country.
It also sought to assess the effectiveness of initiatives developed to address these and to make recommendations to Ndzimande and the department on how these blockages can be decisively addressed.
A spokesperson in Nzimande’s department, Ishmael Mnisi, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.