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Stellenbosch University to probe ‘grave’ claims of nepotism against vice-chancellor De Villiers

Stellenbosch University to probe ‘grave’ claims of nepotism against vice-chancellor De Villiers
Stellenbosch University vice-chancellor Wim de Villiers at a graduation ceremony on 30 March 2023. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

The council of Stellenbosch University has agreed to estalblish a committee investigate allegations of nepotism against vice-chancellor and rectorate Wim de Villiers, who is already in the firing line over the use of Afrikaans at the university.

The committee – which was agreed to on Monday, 17 April – will comprise three people, including an independent legal professional.

A motion to dismiss De Villiers was tabled at Monday’s meeting, in terms of section 42(3) of the SU Statute, which states:

“The Council may dismiss the rector from office by a two-thirds majority vote of all the members of the Council on the grounds of a serious violation of the law, serious misconduct, or incapacity due to poor work performance or ill health or injury.”

The motion was placed on the agenda by DA MP Dr Leon Schreiber and seconded by Dr Jan Heunis, president of the executive committee of the Convocation.

Acting council chairperson Dr Nicky Newton-King said that “the allegations of nepotism are grave”, adding: “Once council has the committee’s report, it will evaluate it and consider the motion brought by Dr Schreiber.”

Newton-King was also elected the new council chairperson at the meeting, following the death of former chair Ainsley Moos earlier this year.

The allegations

The controversy around De Villiers follows reports of nepotism, according to which he allegedly used his discretionary right to secure a place for his wife’s nephew in the university’s medical faculty and assisted another family member to be placed at the university.

In the wake of these claims, members of the executive committee of the Convocation, which has five members, requested the resignation of De Villiers and the registrar, Dr Ronel Retief.

A statement by the executive committee said their resignation request came after considering several instances of “poor judgement and the management style of the rector”.

These include:

“a) the instances of nepotism; b) the Registrar’s acceptance of responsibility for the Rector’s nepotism; c) The unacceptable misuse of communication channels with alumni in favour of those who condone the Rector’s behaviour; and d) the SAHRC’s findings of 15 March 2023 regarding various human rights violations on campus.”

However, members of the Convocation expressed concern over the executive committee’s resignation requests.

The Convocation includes people who have a qualification from the university as well as current and former full-time academic staff.

In a letter to Newton-King, the executive committee of the Convocation and the rectorate, members of the Convocation wrote: “We consider the lack of consultation with the SU broader constituency regretful and we regard the harm done to the University’s reputation and integrity in a very serious light.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: SAHRC report on language issue at Stellenbosch University is deeply flawed

They also found the request undemocratic and unconstitutional. “We call for a formal investigation into the allegations against the vice-chancellor and registrar so as to establish the true facts before a motion of no confidence can be voted on.”

The letter was signed by 258 people, including leading professors  Jonathan Jansen and Thuli Madonsela.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘The vultures are out’ — Prof Jonathan Jansen highlights corruption and looting at SA universities

Language troubles

Schreiber announced in March that he intended to table a motion for the removal of De Villiers after a report by the SA Human Rights Commission found that the university had violated the rights of Afrikaans-speaking students, following allegations that the use of Afrikaans had been limited at some residences.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lost in (mis)translation: Probe into alleged ban on Afrikaans at Maties residences hears starkly conflicting arguments

The complainants in the report were the Freedom Front Plus and Schreiber. Its findings read:

“The Commission finds that the Respondent [Stellenbosch University], through the residence policies, unfairly violated the human rights of the affected students to: a) freedom of expression; b) language and culture; c) equality and to not be discriminated against on the basis of language; and d) human dignity.”

Stellenbosch University residences said it was their intention to promote the inclusion of speakers of all languages and not exclude Afrikaans speakers, according to the report.

The council meeting on Monday also touched on the report by the SAHRC, reiterating that their conduct in limiting the use of Afrikaans at residences was wrong and should not have happened. The university issued an apology on the same day to affected students. The opening sentence reads:

“We unequivocally apologise to all students in Minerva and Irene who were affected by the residence practices during welcoming week in 2021 and who felt that their human rights and dignity were affected by not being able to speak Afrikaans in a social context.” DM


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