Blade Nzimande asked to intervene over suspension of Vaal University of Technology registrar
Suspended registrar Dr Dan Mokoena has asked Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande to intervene. In 2019, the university was placed under administration, led by Professor Ihron Rensburg.
Troubled Vaal University of Technology (VUT) has placed registrar Dr Dan Mokoena on precautionary suspension, allegedly amid a falling-out with council chairperson Professor Mandla Radebe.
Daily Maverick has learnt that following Mokoena’s suspension on 26 October 2023 he sent a detailed correspondence containing serious allegations against Radebe to the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande, pleading for his intervention.
Nzimande’s spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi confirmed on Thursday, 2 November that Mokoena’s correspondence had been received by the department.
He said the department was also analysing the contents of documents that accompanied Mokoena’s correspondence.
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Mnisi said Nzimande would be advised by the department on a way forward.
VUT spokesperson Kediemetse Mokotsi said on Tuesday, 31 October that the university council and Radebe were aware of Mokoena’s correspondence with Nzimande.
“Furthermore, VUT confirms that Dr Mokoena has been placed on precautionary suspension pending an investigation,” Mokotsi said.
She said Radebe had taken note of the “baseless allegations” levelled by Mokoena against him and reserved his right to address these at the appropriate time and in the proper forum.
In the correspondence to Nzimande, which Daily Maverick has seen, Mokoena stated that he had been approached by Radebe, allegedly acting on behalf of council, to consider acting in the position of vice-chancellor and principal.
This was in February 2023, around the time the late vice-chancellor and principal Professor Dan Kgwadi was put on special leave over differences with Radebe’s council about Kgwadi’s sick leave.
Kgwadi died on 30 April 2023.
Having already acted in the positions earlier at the request of the erstwhile administrator, Prof Ihron Rensburg, Mokoena gladly accepted the assignment.
Rensburg was appointed as an administrator by Nzimande in August 2019.
At the time, Nzimande stated in a letter to the then council chairperson Tebogo Hlapolosa that he had approached Rensburg because of “very serious governance and management challenges” that undermined the effective functioning of the university.
That led to the end of Professor Ndodomzi Gordon Zide’s role as the vice-chancellor and principal of the university.
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Mokoena stated in the correspondence to Nzimande that the assignment was accompanied by expectations from Radebe, to which he had declined to accede.
On several occasions, he stated that Radebe requested that he appoint an official, whose name is known to Daily Maverick but could not be reached for comment, to the position of registrar in exchange for his appointment as the permanent vice-chancellor and principal.
“Fully cognisant of the demands, expertise and experience required in the position of the Registrar as well as the requirements of fairness in VUT’s recruitment process, I tried my best to guide the conversation away from his suggestions,” Mokoena wrote in the correspondence to Nzimande.
Over time, Mokoena stated that it became clear that he could no longer tolerate the increasing pressure and he declined Radebe’s alleged suggestion.
“Since that day, my relationship with the Chairperson of Council has moved fast into becoming a very unsupportive one and the chairperson conducting meetings with stakeholders at the university without my knowledge,” he wrote.
Radebe’s frequency at the university without his knowledge, Mokoena stated, became apparent, and it appeared that something else was being planned.
Given the worsening working relationship, he stated that in the interests of the university, he decided to withdraw his candidacy for the position of vice-chancellor and principal.
“Already at this stage, it had become apparent that several efforts were made to interfere and manipulate the recruitment process to the extent that former members of Council were drawn into selection committees.”
On several occasions where there were differences among council members or with other stakeholders, Mokoena stated that it was strange that Radebe would allegedly invoke Nzimande’s name in meetings, suggesting that his views and conduct were known and endorsed by the minister.
Mokoena stated that he had tried to caution against this tendency as it could bring the ministry into disrepute.
‘Their terms ended’
Following the meeting of council of June 2023, Mokoena stated that Radebe and members of the convocation who were believed to be aligned with him were advised that their tenure of office would expire ahead of a council meeting in September.
“Consequently, letters were issued to all affected members. They were shocked that the chairperson of Council and members of Convocation refused to comply with the advisory letters and in fact insisted on participating in Council meetings.”
This conduct, Mokoena stated, was undoubtedly a breach of the Higher Education Act and the university statute.
Due to the end of the terms of various stakeholders, he stated that council was in the normal process of reconstitution.
“In disregard of the normal [course] of events and acting against advice, the Chairperson of Council continued to call for special Council meetings which are not complying with the standard requirements of the Act and the Statute.”
In his capacity as the registrar, Mokoena stated that he prepared and shared an advisory note which had been ignored.
“I have now learned in shock that yet another special meeting outside of the Council adopted a calendar and only nine members met to appoint a new Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University. The constitution of this meeting was also irregular.”
He stated that he also learnt about Radebe’s plans to suspend him on the basis of the advisory note shared with council.
“I wish to draw the Minister’s urgent attention to these developments for his counsel and intervention as may be considered necessary,” he wrote.
According to a letter dated 26 October, addressed by acting VUT vice-chancellor and principal Dr Simphiwe Nelana to Mokoena, he was being placed on precautionary suspension pending an investigation on a “number of matters observed from your office in recent months that exposed the university to certain governance and performance risks”.
“Due to the seriousness of these matters, a decision has been taken that you be suspended from duty immediately pending a formal investigation,” Nelana wrote.
Should the investigation report confirm any wrongdoing on Mokoena’s part, Nelana stated that he would remain suspended pending his disciplinary hearing.
In part, Nelana stated that Mokoena was suspended with full benefits and warned him not to perform any remunerative work outside the university during the period of suspension unless there was an approved application for private work.
“Please note that this suspension does not in any way constitute a judgement on your part but merely a precautionary suspension in terms of Disciplinary Code and Procedure,” the letter read.
Asked about the latest request for intervention, Nzimande’s spokesperson Mnisi said the minister took no pleasure in intervening in any institution of higher learning.
“When an intervention is invoked, it is to restore proper governance and management. It then becomes regrettable when there is regression that necessitates the Minister’s further intervention,” Mnisi said.
An intervention in the affairs of public higher education institutions, Mnisi said, requires a proper understanding of the issues and had to follow due process as outlined in the Act.
“The process is under way to look at the issues that Dr Mokoena is raising in order to determine the kind of intervention and measures required,” he said. DM