Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education has received 15 written submissions from witnesses who will participate in its inquiry into the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU) vice-chancellor, Peter Mbati. 

The terms of reference of the inquiry, adopted two weeks ago, state it will look at whether the appointment of Mbati at SMU was procedural, among other things.

The inquiry will also deal with sexual harassment allegations against Mbati when he was the vice-chancellor of the University of Venda (Univen), in 2011, and whether Univen followed its own sexual harassment policy at the time. It will also evaluate allegations of financial maladministration and mismanagement against Univen and Mbati.

The Mail & Guardian reported last month that the inquiry, which should have taken place in September, had been put on hold after Mbati and Univen threatened an urgent interdict to stop the inquiry from proceeding. Mbati had taken issue with the committee investigating the allegations of sexual harassment, which he said were already exhausted in court and of which he was cleared. 

The allegations of sexual misconduct were made by Thidziambi Phendla, a former dean of education at Univen. 

Mbati and Phendla have provided statements to the committee but Phendla’s statement was not shared publicly. 

Others to appear before the committee are former council members at Univen, former and current staff members who worked closely with him and the Commission for Gender Equality, which had also dealt with the sexual misconduct allegations.

Lavery Modise, who was appointed by the Univen council to mediate the sexual harassment complaint, had found that Mbati and Phendla had had a consensual relationship. 

The former acting head of the legal department at the Commission for Gender Equality, Azwindini Mavhidula, wrote that the commission had been of the view that there was sufficient evidence to charge Mbati with sexual harassment. 

Mavhidula also said the human resource manager and the legal adviser of Univen could not explain why the university had failed to comply with its sexual harassment policy when dealing with the complaint.

Nyelisani Clarence Tshitereke, who was a director in Mbati’s office, wrote that Mbati had used the university’s funds to pursue defences against the accusation.

In his statement, Mbati wrote that the chair of the council had rejected the allegations of sexual misconduct, and that at a special council meeting in 2016 he was absolved of the allegations. That former chair is Shirley Mabusela, who said that the council had appointed a mediator in line with the university’s sexual harassment policy. After receiving Modise’s report, the council had sought legal opinion and was advised that since Modise had cleared Mbati of sexual harassment there would be no basis to pursue a disciplinary process against him.

The committee is yet to announce when the inquiry will take place and has maintained that it will not ventilate issues that have already been before court.

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