Unrest on the campus

Relaxed students and happy staff feature in the University of Venda prospectus, but RW Johnson finds fear and corruption.

Deputy President Thabo Mbeki is not in the habit of commenting on internal university affairs, let alone criticising the young lions of the student movement, but in his budget vote speech to Parliament on June 3, 1998 he made a special exception. Attacking members of the black elite who abused freedom in the name of entitlement, he cited the case of the University of Venda. “Only a few days ago African students burnt down offices at the University of Venda,” he said. “What they were demanding was that the university should give them about R500 000 for a student party, allow each student to have, on average, 30 cans of beer there, and readmit to the university the president of the SRC and a leader of Azasco who, in four years, had completed only four courses.” Mbeki is quite right that freedom is being abused at that institution, but the story of the University of Venda is far more extraordinary than the usual excesses of student power.

Situated in Thohoyandou, one time capital of the “independent” homeland of Venda, it is by some way the country’s youngest as well as most northerly university. Its first vice-chancellor (VC), Professor Ton de Coning, was relieved of his post in 1985 following a commission of inquiry into nepotism and financial corruption. Impressed by the demeanour of the commission’s chairman, Professor Pieter du Plessis, the university council prevailed on him to stay on as VC. Despite his initial opposition to student participation (he was a Broederbonder), du Plessis was forced by senate to accept certain realities: students at Univen became full members of both senate and council before any other university.

Du Plessis thereafter made a virtue of ignoring the academic faculty and gave in to virtually every student demand, showering them with money and famously entertaining them in all-night drinking sessions. Professor Philip Moila, who briefly succeeded du Plessis as caretaker VC, recalls with wonderment how he found that every cupboard and drawer in his office was full of bottles. In 1992 another commission of inquiry led to du Plessis’s dismissal and the suspension of his deputy, registrar and public relations officer, the students demonstrated in his support and refused to let council meet on campus.

The bewilderingly numerous student movements — the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco), the Azanian Students’ Convention (Azasco), the Pan Africanist Students’ Organisation (Paso), the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) — joined with the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) and radical faculty members to form a Broad Transformation Committee (BTC). For all its radical slogans, this committee was intent on recreating the favourable conditions that had prevailed under du Plessis, who had departed to head Vaal Technikon (a post from which he was later dismissed). The student coalition quickly formed an alliance with the suspended deputy vice-chancellor, registrar and public relations officer and brought such pressure to bear on council that its members resigned en masse, giving way to a new council dominated by the BTC.
Its first task, as the university’s ruling body, was to select a vice-chancellor. Enter Gessler Nkondo. Shortly before he had been forced to quit his position as deputy VC at the University of the North (Turfloop) after the news leaked out that Yale University had stripped him of his PhD on grounds of plagiarism, information that he had successfully kept from Turfloop when first appointed.

Nkondo made contact with the BTC and the suspended officers and lobbied with great effect. However, both the academic staff association and senate regarded his candidacy with contempt and refused to shortlist him. Council overrode their objections and Nkondo was one of three candidates invited for interview; he was also the only candidate to turn up. Suspicions of foul play led to a re-advertisement, though the advert was now tailored to suit Nkondo. He dealt with the plagiarism issue by issuing an affidavit insisting, incorrectly, that he had a PhD. None of this mattered: Nkondo had the support of the SRC and Sasco and this in turn meant that the BTC supported him. No external assessors were allowed to play any part in the selection process. Moreover, one of Nkondo’s strongest supporters was the chairman of council, the writer Ezekiel Mphahlele. This was not surprising: much of Nkondo’s research was devoted to Mphahlele’s work.

Nkondo was duly appointed in March 1994 and the event was celebrated as an ANC takeover (just one month later, Northern province gave the ANC its biggest regional majority). Sasco, which is ANC-aligned, has always won the SRC elections at Venda and was the driving force behind Nkondo’s appointment; Walter Sisulu was the university’s chancellor and has since been replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa. Nkondo himself is an adviser and friend of the province’s ANC chairman, George Mashamba, who also sits on the university council. Graduation ceremonies soon became ANC affairs.

Nkondo is acknowledged even by his enemies to be an able man, but he took office knowing that the academic faculty as a whole had refused even to consider him for his post. Clearly regarding them as his enemies, he set out to marginalise and subjugate them. There were endless battles with senate over every aspect of academic administration, so he packed the senate’s executive committee (Senex) with his trusties and used this to railroad measures through. He installed his cronies and clients in more and more key positions: the suspended university officials were restored to power; several other appointments went to friends from his home village; he has also brought in expatriates from Eastern Europe and the rest of Africa — on short-term contracts to ensure their loyalty, then promoting them to more senior positions. Six out of eight faculty deans are expatriates. (Although Nkondo has preached the doctrine of Africanisation, and some 75 per cent of the academic faculty are black, his penchant for tame East Europeans has reduced the number of African faculty members.)

Any academic who opposed Nkondo’s wishes soon found himself summoned before a handpicked disciplinary committee. When the fact that the vice chancellor had acquired a university credit card with a R150 000 limit was brought to the attention of council, the offending professor, Stefanus Olivier, was carpeted before a disciplinary committee that duly found him guilty. When the head of department of nursing science unwittingly failed to shortlist Nkondo’s wife for a job he too was summoned before a disciplinary committee on a trivial charge and demoted from professor to senior lecturer with a corresponding pay cut. Nkondo has “reformed” the disciplinary process by giving the disciplinary committee unlimited powers of punishment and allowing the VC himself to increase or decrease any sanction, a power which made it entirely clear what fate awaited anyone unwise enough to displease Nkondo.

In 1996 the University of Venda Act and the university’s statutes had to be amended to take account of the re-incorporation of the former homeland into South Africa. Nkondo seized this opportunity to weaken senate by adding a clause that withdrew the automatic membership of all professors to that body. He later claimed that this measure had the support of senate and council, though in fact neither body was allowed to express an opinion and only heard of the amendment process by accident. Professor Olivier, who was bold enough to inform the education minister, Sibusiso Bengu, of the lack of consultation over the new Act, was suspended without pay before being summoned to another disciplinary committee hearing. The fact that these disciplinary judgements have always been thrown out by courts on appeal does not greatly diminish their threat: appeals take time and money and outcomes are uncertain. Younger academics, scared of the threat of a disciplinary committee and aware that the attendance register for staff union meetings is sent on to Nkondo’s office, have become increasingly afraid to attend meetings, let alone stick their necks out by opposing Nkondo. Similarly, Nehawu, which was a significant part of the coalition that brought Nkondo to power, has been brought to heel by talk of possible retrenchments. Amid the poverty of rural Northern Province, where many wage earners are keeping ten or more people, no one can risk losing a job.

The university council is packed with staff who are loyal to or frightened of the VC — though one or two members have bravely kept up the fight for transparency. In 1995 Mphahlele was replaced as council chairman by Regan Jacobus, a noted radical from the University of Durban-Westville (UDW). Jacobus was singled out by the 1997 presidential commission of inquiry into UDW as one of the most disruptive elements on the campus, and recommended that he face disciplinary charges and criminal prosecution. Jacobus is today vice-rector of Natal Technikon. At the beginning of this year, Nkondo’s friend, Barney Pityana, chairman of the Human Rights Commission, took over as chairman of the council.

Nkondo seems to be a machine boss, ruling the campus through a mix of fear and cronyism. Inevitably, rewards have come with power. The R150 000 university credit card was only the first of many causes celebres. Rows over Nkondo’s exorbitant travel expenses are another regular event. Council still does not know what the VC’s salary is — or, for that matter, the salaries of his deputy, the registrar, or the directors of finance, library services, public relations or human resources. This year’s budget allocation for the vice-chancellor’s office (excluding salaries and car allowances) is R1 357 600 — considerably more than the allocation for the huge faculty of human sciences, twice the size of the allocation for the faculty of business and six times that for the school of law. Nkondo himself travels extensively, so that the campus is frequently left in the hands of his deputy, Professor V.N. Vera, a Zimbabwean expatriate who served under Minister Bengu when he headed Fort Hare.

Nkondo has taken care to keep Sasco on side, rewarding its leaders with various perks. Indeed, the Sasco-supporting president of the SRC, who had backed Nkondo’s candidacy in the first place, was soon to be seen driving around in a BMW. Under these conditions Azasco emerged as the voice of student protest and the SRC has countered by using its power to licence student gatherings to prevent Azasco from holding meetings. In 1996, Boiki Tsedu, the national president of Azasco, attempted to stand for the SRC but found his nomination disallowed. Not long after Nkondo raised student fees by 13 per cent and persuaded the SRC to sign a joint declaration in favour of the increase. Azasco took up the cries of student outrage and began publicly to link the fee increase with the question of administrative corruption and the VC’s conspicuous consumption. Angry students chased the SRC off campus, but the university authorities gave them alternative accommodation in a luxury lodge with transport to campus laid on.

A prolonged period of student unrest, marked by frequent class-disruptions, sit-ins and police interventions on the campus has followed. In April last year, Nkondo ruled that the Azasco leader, Boiki Tsedu, would not be allowed on campus to register. Whenever he slipped onto campus, security guards escorted him off. Then he ruled that Tsedu would not be permitted to register because he had not passed sufficient courses, although much had previously been made of the university’s “open access” policy. When the professor of law, Professor Suryia K. Parmanand, registered Tsedu, Senex overruled the registration. A disciplinary committee found Parmanand guilty, demoted him and cut his salary. Once more Tsedu was escorted off campus by security guards and other Azasco leaders were charged with holding illegal meetings and expelled. Their sentences have been reduced on appeal, though only on the strict condition that they forgo student politics.

In May, shortly before Cyril Ramaphosa’s installation as chancellor, the SRC offices were burnt down and the blame laid at Azasco’s door. The campus authorities, determined to use whatever force was required to break the protests, have no apparent difficulty in getting police back up. Police have used teargas, rubber bullets and, on one occasion, live ammunition (a student was hospitalised with shotgun wounds). Even helicopters have brought into play against the students. The authorities have also made each student sign a form promising not to hold meetings or stage demonstrations and no one is allowed onto campus without it — a fact that quickly earned it the name “dompas”. In addition, they must produce a special slip stamped by campus security guards, if they wish to use the library.

Last October Azasco’s campaigning brought it victory in the SRC elections. It won nine out of ten seats, the remaining seat going to the SCM. Sasco was wiped out. Further trouble became inevitable after the new SRC began to galvanise opposition to another increase in student fees. Police were called in with the usual violent results and in February the SRC was suspended and Azasco banned. Their office was shut down, but Sasco has been allowed to continue, for Nkondo still hopes to rebuild it into a politically reliable force. Significantly, Evans Salomo, the Sasco SRC president of 1996, has recently resurfaced on campus as Nkondo’s research assistant “on an aspect of African poetry” — a strange appointment since Salomo failed English II. (Salomo’s exam results were blocked for two years because he had failed to pay his fees, but have now been released since Nkondo himself has paid them.) Nevertheless, it is widely assumed that if the SRC elections, due in October, are not rigged, Azasco will again sweep the board.

Neither senate nor council has objected to the suspension of the SRC and the banning of the most popular student organisation. Nehawu is so scared of Nkondo that it failed to register any protest at the suppression of a brother union, merely saying that it was not sufficiently informed to express a view on the matter. The academic staff association (a Cosatu affiliate) did object and has met with the banned SRC off campus, but its membership is too cowed for it to have much impact.

Meanwhile student affairs are run out of the dean of students’ office. It was the burning down of this office in late May that Deputy President Mbeki alluded to in the speech with which this article began. His speech must have greatly heartened Nkondo, who likes to represent the troubles at Venda as an Azasco attempt to destabilise the ANC. In fact Nkondo, like Barney Pityana, is an old Black Consciousness militant whose roots in the ANC are shallow. More generally, the characterisation of the conflict as Nkondo versus irresponsible student radicals suits the VC. The behaviour of Univen’s students is undoubtedly open to criticism, but it is too easily forgotten that Nkondo owed his position to an over-mighty SRC in the first place.

The university’s legal-aid unit has taken Nkondo’s side throughout and refused legal aid to any students in trouble as result of the turmoil on campus. The unit is part of the national Legal Aid Board and should be independent, but it is possible that the unit’s director is distracted by his own problems for he has recently been charged with two counts of attempted murder. This merely confirms the pervasive feeling that the rule of law is, at best, a shaky guide to what happens at Venda — a feeling further reinforced by Nkondo’s repeated failure to comply with a court order to pay child maintenance of R750 a month to his three children. When his former wife appeared in court on May 21, she complained that for over a year Nkondo had ignored six separate summons to appear, displaying an extraordinary, and public, contempt for the law.

The anti-Nkondo dissidents have given up hope that their grievances can be expressed through the usual university structures. Theirs is an unusual situation. Instead of power being expropriated by the usual worker-student alliance, the academic faculty and all others have found power expropriated by an old-fashioned machine boss. They took their troubles to Walter Sisulu but got nowhere and have since communicated their case to Barney Pityana, Cyril Ramaphosa and the public protector, Selby Baqwa. None of these gentlemen has done anything. However, the dissidents have also laid their case before Judge Willem Heath’s anti-corruption unit and Heath is expected to begin his inquiries in Northern Province soon.

But to focus on corruption alone is to miss an important part of the point. Nothing is more remarkable than the fact that a university headed by a chancellor who was an architect of the country’s new constitution, a vice chancellor who constantly talks of the African renaissance and a chairman of council who also chairs the Human Rights Commission, has re-invented many of the worst apartheid abuses, cheerfully trampling on human and constitutional rights as it does so. Organisations are banned; individuals are proscribed from political activity and exiled from the campus; a pass system is put in place in which students have to swear away their constitutional rights; the legal aid unit fails to dispense legal aid; the usual democratic institutions of higher education are by-passed; trade union rights are trampled on; the results of elections are overturned and the attempt is made to build up student political stooges; protesting students have been fired on and protesting academics persecuted on trumped-up charges before kangaroo courts so at odds with natural justice that their results are always overturned by the courts. On the face of it, the University of Venda appears an outstanding candidate for investigation by the Human Rights Commission — an investigation in which the commission’s own chairman will have some tough questions to answer.