Professor Puleng LenKabula, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Africa (Unisa), reminds me of former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Lenkabula and Rousseff, for different reasons, epitomise the pain of being an outsider and the consequences of not being a candidate for the establishment in any race. The establishment is the dominant social group, the élite, who control a polity, an organisation, or an institution.
Brazil’s first female president, Rousseff, is a former guerilla fighter and member of the Workers Party in the South American country. The Brazilian political and business establishment regarded her as an outsider, thus unacceptable. After succeeding President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2011 against the establishment’s wishes, she was removed from power by the impeachment process starting in December 2015 and ending in August 2016.
The main charge against the economics graduate was that she had violated fiscal laws by manipulating the federal budget to hide the actual state of her country’s finances. Rousseff’s critics had also accused her of using illegal accounting tricks to allow her government to spend more money ahead of the 2014 election, in which she was re-elected.
As an alma mater of Unisa, I could not help but be drawn to the storm that has engulfed the institution I graduated from 22 years ago. The furore emanates from the leaked report of the Independent Assessor, the University of Pretoria Professor Themba Mosia, commissioned by Higher Education Minister Dr Blade Nzimande following the Ministerial Task Team report released in 2021.
The report and its findings are welcome to help fight the apparent corruption and maladministration at Unisa and assist the institution in addressing its administrative and management challenges. But, importantly, we must fight all corruption, maladministration, fraud and other crimes whenever they raise their ugly heads. And, anyone suspected of wrongdoing should be held accountable and subjected to all applicable rules and laws.
I hold no brief for LenKabula and have never met her before. However, Mosia’s report appears to have been either tailored for political purposes or hijacked to further political and economic agendas in the toxic politics of higher education institutions nationwide. It follows a disturbing pattern whereby commissions and investigations seem to get weaponised to stage the removal of the incumbents, mostly black officials and executives, from key positions in government, Chapter 9 Institutions and universities. Moreover, it highlights the inconsistent application of ethical and moral standards in the higher education sector and South Africa.
The Mpati Investigation into the University of Cape Town (UCT) and allegations of bullying and intimidation against former Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng is just one of examples.
As was the case with Phakeng, some people made unwarranted calls for LenkaBula to step down, including the Unisa Council, after the leaking of Mosia’s report. LenkaBula, the first female vice-chancellor of one of Africa’s most prominent universities, has only been in that position for two years. She joined the institution in January 2021 amid fierce resistance from some members of the University’s management and Council, including former members who had preferred another candidate.
The attacks we’ve seen against LenkaBula are not unique to Unisa. However, the public should understand them in the context of the toxic fight for power and control of institutions of higher learning and their resources.
In February this year, the UCT Council decided to suspend Phakeng. The reasons reported were around “allegations of mismanagement and abuse of power” against her. However, as soon as she took over in 2018, the unorthodox Phakeng faced criticism for her social media presence and public statements, deemed “controversial” by some in the institution.
Phakeng was criticised internally and externally despite her successes in transforming the institution and maintaining its global academic reputation. When her exit took place, it almost felt like an engineered campaign to paint her tenure as negatively as possible, overlooking her transformation achievements. Despite her credentials and performance record, Phakeng could not survive the toxic politics of higher institutions.
The University of Fort Hare (UFH), Vaal University of Technology (VUT), and Stellenbosch University have also been embroiled in controversy. The case of UFH was both bone-chilling and revealing at the same time. The reported killings of university staff and bodyguards paint a grim picture of spaces that should ordinarily be safe.
After the arrests of the Fort Hare suspects, the court heard that police found an alleged hit list with photographs of 13 people. Vice-Chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu was allegedly the primary target. So severe was the situation that Nzimande even sent a task team to manage UFH. In January this year, the minister established a multi-disciplinary task team to investigate the fatal attacks.
So why would the institutions be rocked by these scandals and the level of decline? Media reports have revealed that former UFH student leader, Sicelo Mbulawa, allegedly played a vital role in extracting millions of rands through corrupt supplier contracts while studying towards his degree.
In LenKabula’s case, the involvement of former Unisa Vice Challencer, Dr Barney Pityana, in a media campaign for her removal is fascinating. Pityana has been very vocal on the affairs of Unisa, going as far as calling for the dissolution of the Council and LenkaBula’s axing. At the heart of Pityana’s media utterances is a repeated narrative about the “capture of Unisa”. In 2021, after unsuccessfully calling for the Council to quit, Mosia’s report came as a gift for Pityana.
But Pityana is no angel. He quickly calls for LenkaBula to resign over the University residence upgrades even though he faced the same allegations during his tenure 20 years ago. A Mail and Guardian report reveals that in 2002 when he took over as Unisa vice-chancellor, Pityana had a mismanagement scandal after allegedly spending millions renovating the university residence, upgrading the office and other travel jamborees. Yet, ironically, he did not resign.
Without presenting supporting evidence, Pityana claims that “Professor LenkaBula was brought in by a cabal to Unisa.” The suggestion that the current Council is a “cabal” further exposes the toxic politics that have permeated the institutions of higher learning. Does it mean Pityana’s departure in 2015 also marked the end of the reign of his own “cabal” then?
Worryingly, Mosia’s report mirrors Pityana and others’ narratives. “It appears to me that certain rogue elements infiltrated the Council to pursue their own interests above those of the University ”, reads part of the leaked Independent Assessor’s Report. Mosia’s report maintains that “we had hustlers and people with no university experience” comprising the Unisa Council. The theme of “contestation”, “capture”, “cabal” and “fights” is a common thread in the report.
Like Phakeng, LenkaBula has been accused of creating an organisational culture of fear, intimidation and bullying. Pityana further criticises her, claiming that she did not resolve Unisa’s 10-year problems and those inherited from her predecessor in her two-year tenure. For that, Pityana is calling for her to go.
Overlooked by Pityana and other critics is that LenKabula had been in her position for two years and that Unisa’s rise in Times Higher Education (THE) rankings continued despite the University’s problems. Raising the institution’s prestige on international platforms is no small feat.
It is no secret that many did not accept LenkaBula’s ascent into her position. But why the media campaign for her head and the inconsistent application of moral and ethical standards? Mosia’s report and its analysis may present the answers. The fierce contestations in UFH, VUT, and other institutions give even more clues.
There are no guarantees that another “cabal” would not “capture” Unisa even after the disbandment of the current Council. By drifting deep into the terrain of university employees’ political battles, Mosia sensationalised and undermined what could have been a tool used to fix the institution.
Ultimately, by design or default, LenKabula’s detractors reduced Mosia’s report to a tool in the toxic battle for control of higher learning institutions in South Africa and their resources rather than fixing whatever challenges Unisa may have. And just like Rousseff, LenKabula may be paying the price for not being an establishment candidate.
Mahasha Rampedi is the Editor-In-Chief of African Times.