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President of Stellenbosch University executive committee resigns after convocation vote of no confidence

President of Stellenbosch University executive committee resigns after convocation vote of no confidence
Stellenbosch University (Photo: Joel Ontong)

At a meeting on Thursday 1 June, the Stellenbosch University convocation tabled two motions of no confidence. They voted against all members of the executive committee of the convocation, except its vice-president. Shortly after this, Jan Heunis, executive committee president, resigned from council.

During a meeting on Thursday 1 June 2023, the Stellenbosch University (SU) convocation voted no confidence in the executive committee of the convocation, excluding its vice-president, Dr Rudi Buys. With the exception of Buys, executive committee members must vacate their positions.

Following this, Jan Heunis, the executive committee president resigned from the council of the university with immediate effect. 

“Dr Heunis has given many years of service to the university, on convocation and on council and I thank him for this. I wish him well,” said Dr Nicky Newton-King, chair of the council in a statement.

Advocate Jan Heunis, SC. (Screenshot: YouTube)

No confidence in executive committee

The motion against the executive committee was in response to the committee requesting the resignation of the SU rector and vice-chancellor, Wim De Villiers, in light of nepotism reports. The nepotism charges are still being investigated.

Convocation members stated that the executive’s decision was made without proper consultation with the wider convocation. Buys has said that he was against the decision for the resignation request and was thus spared in the motion. The executive committee is made up of five members.

The convocation consists of all SU graduates, full-time and retired academic staff and diplomats. Members of the convocation elect the executive committee and can remove executive members.

Voting was open for 24 hours, from Thursday night to Friday night and was done in person and online.

Buys will perform the functions of the executive committee until a new committee is elected.

Vice-Chancellor Wim de Villiers on 19 May 2022 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / ER Lombard)

The motions

On the night of the meeting, two motions of no confidence were tabled. Motion one was against the executive committee, excluding Buys. It was later announced that motion one was adopted after voting closed. Motion two was only against Buys and was rejected.

Motion one was tabled after the executive committee decided in April to request the resignation of De Villiers and SU registrar, Dr Ronel Retief. Convocation members were unhappy with the executive committee’s lack of consultation regarding the matter. The motion was distributed in a letter by Dr Louise van Rhyn.

The executive committee’s resignation request considered the nepotism reports against De Villiers, the registrar’s involvement in the matter and the SAHRC’s findings “regarding various human rights violations on campus”. This is according to a statement by the executive committee.

The reports of nepotism against De Villiers say that he used his discretionary right to secure a place for two family members at the university. According to reports, the second placement was withdrawn.

Motion one, as written by Van Rhyn, stated that the executive committee “acted in an undemocratic and unconstitutional manner” and that their “unlawful decision caused serious harm to the University’s reputation and integrity”.

Motion two, which was rejected, was distributed in a letter by Daniël Gerhardus Ras. The motion stated that Buys supported the resignation request with the other executive committee members.

It further stated that Buys distanced himself from this decision, has driven a campaign against his fellow committee members, sown division within the convocation and damaged the image of SU. Thus, motion two just wanted Buys removed.

Executive speaks

Executive committee members were given an opportunity to respond to the motions tabled against them at Thursday’s meeting.

Jan Heunis reiterated the goal of the convocation to the audience. According to the university’s statute, the convocation aims to “promote the welfare of the university by maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship between the university and the members of the convocation”.

The executive committee brings effect to the convocation’s decisions, assists the convocation with its goals and reports to them. Heunis said that as president of the executive committee, he has fulfilled these objectives. Heunis also maintained that the resignation request was reached by a unanimous decision among executive committee members.

According to Heunis, the executive committee considered more than just the nepotism reports when deciding on the resignation request. It included De Villiers’s handling of the university’s language policy. It also included the allegations of interference against De Villiers during a constitutional court case regarding SU’s language policy in 2016. De Villiers was cleared of interference by an independent investigation.

Buys also responded to the motion against him. He stated that he was the only executive member who argued against the resignation request for De Villiers.

However, he considers himself “bound to majority decisions of meetings”. “This, however, does not mean decisions are made by full consensus which was also the case,” he added. There was no vote during the meeting, just a debate, where he was unable to convince his colleagues, he said.

Convocation speaks

Motion one, against the executive committee members excluding Buys, was presented by Van Rhyn and convocation member Yanga Keva at the meeting. “The executive committee made a decision for us, without us,” Keva said. “What is most concerning however, is not the decision itself, but the blatant disregard for the very voices of the very people it claims to represent,” he stated, referring to the resignation request.

Motion two, only against Buys, was presented by Ras. He stated the executive committee’s resignation request was a draft decision and not official. Ras felt that if this fact was clearer, the convocation “could have dealt with this unsavoury situation relatively quickly”.

There were prominent voices in favour of motion one.

“At what stage do we ask for people to be fired? Don’t we wait for a process to unfold. Even when that process is unfolded, we still have to look at what is the seriousness,” said Prof Thuli Madonsela, who was in favour of the first motion, to Daily Maverick.

“Whatever reason somebody found that there was nepotism, which I don’t think there was, based on my own interpretation… is the death penalty of labour law [appropriate]?” she added. Dismissal due to misconduct is sometimes referred to as the “death penalty” in the labour law context. “Procedure matters, the ends do not justify the means.”

Businessman Christoffel Wiese was also in favour of motion one. “I find myself in the uncomfortable position that I am going to vote for [ motion one] that concerns the fact that the correct procedure was not followed,” he said at the meeting.

“It is not about the merit of professor De Villiers or Prof Madonsela or Dr Buys. It’s about a principle… Does the executive committee of the convocation, according to the constitution, have the right to make a decision like this?” Wiese added.

Lwazi Phakade, ward councillor in the Langa Township and convocation member, was also in favour of the first motion. “We are not going to argue on the basis of whether or not this convocation, led by Advocate Jan Heunis, has been doing a witch-hunt on the vice-chancellor. We know that there has been a witch-hunt on the vice chancellor way before the allegations of nepotism,” Phakade said. DM

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