Professor ‘sexually harassed’ for years

2015-02-01 15:00

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An investigative report by the Commission for Gender Equality contains startling allegations that the vice-chancellor of the University of Venda sexually harassed the institution’s dean of education for two years and forced her to have sex with him.

And after Professor Thidziambi Tshivhase-Phendla allegedly refused to continue to satisfy Peter Mbati’s alleged sexual demands, he had her charged with misconduct and she was fired.

Tshivhase-Phendla has given City Press permission to publish her name and her photograph. “I have nothing to hide. I just want to tell the truth as I know it, and I am glad that an independent and reputable body has investigated and made its findings to that effect,” she said.

The university has, however, come out strongly disputing the allegations and the credibility of the commission’s findings.

“Communication has been sent to the [commission] wherein it was pointed out, inter alia, that the university is concerned about the legality of the report and requires clarification of aspects thereof. The university and the [commission] are currently engaged in a process to resolve the issues raised by the report,” said Edward Lambani, the university’s director of legal services.

The university not only disputed the findings, but has robustly defended Mbati, saying he never “made any romantic advances towards Professor Tshivhase-Phendla at any stage, nor did Professor Mbati inform her that he was romantically interested in her”.

The institution added that their relationship was “strictly professional and there is nothing untoward in relation to the vice-chancellor Professor Mbati meeting with his deans at his residence”.

The commission’s report, compiled after an investigation that took more than two years, was signed by commission chairperson Mfanozelwe Shozi on December 4. It details Tshivhase-Phendla’s story, which began in 2008, when she first met Mbati after he was introduced to staff as the new vice-chancellor.

In the report, Tshivhase-Phendla is quoted as saying he asked for her cellphone number at a meeting. He then, she alleged, called her and asked her to meet him at his official residence, but she refused, saying she was married and was “scared of visiting him alone”.

But when she began “running out of excuses” and became “scared of denting her official working relationship with him”, she agreed to visit him at home at 6pm one evening, on the understanding that they would “drink coffee” and “talk about the University of Venda”.

Then, the report states, he offered her dinner and told her he was interested in her, but she declined his advances, saying she was married.

“[Tshivhase-Phendla] alleged that while they were still talking, he grabbed her, pushed her down and had sexual intercourse with her?...?After the sexual intercourse, [Mbati] apologised to her and said he could not contain himself because she is too sexy. He then took her home.”

The Commission for Gender Equality said in its report that the police were not approached. In an interview with City Press, though, Tshivhase-Phendla said she reported the case, but nothing came of it.

Limpopo police spokesperson Colonel Ronel Otto said they would investigate and ascertain the status of the case. “Any query is a concern for us and we will find out what happened to this case after charges were laid.”

After the first alleged attack, Tshivhase-Phendla says in the report, things got worse. Mbati allegedly “started calling and inviting her almost every time, but when she arrived he would demand sex”.

“[She] further alleged that when she refused to have sex with him, he would give her the cold shoulder, refusing to approve or sign her requisitions or other official documents.”

He also, the report states, refused to approve her attendance at a conference on “women in politics”.

Then at the end of 2010, she refused to continue having sex with him, and their working relationship “deteriorated completely”.

Tshivhase-Phendla alleged while still refusing to have sex with him, Mbati called her to his office and told her he intended to institute disciplinary action against her based on the recommendations of a forensic report.

The following week, she was given a copy of the misconduct charges against her and was suspended. She then lodged a sexual harassment claim with the university’s council.

Tshivhase-Phendla told investigators she was not given a copy of the forensic report to conduct her defence, and was found guilty and dismissed in November 2011.

The commission’s report found that although Mbati denied in an interview that he was in a “romantic relationship” with Tshivhase-Phendla, he “could not explain some of the incidents that took place?...?such as the reason for telephone calls he made to [her] late at night and the messages he sent” to her.

The report found Tshivhase-Phendla’s claims that she was charged for misconduct after deciding “not to cooperate with [Mbati’s] demands for sex” to be “convincing after considering the manner in which the disciplinary was conducted”.

It also found that the university council had failed to properly abide by its sexual harassment policy. This is strongly denied by the university.

Tshivhase-Phendla told City Press that she suffered financially and that her marriage was ruined.

“I was destroyed emotionally, mentally, and my credibility and character were harmed in the process,” she said.

“I feel let down by the university council and the justice system, but for all the helpless and voiceless women out there, I am intending to fight this to the end and seek justice.”

Commission spokesperson Javu Baloyi confirmed the “existence of the report”.

However, he declined to comment on the details, saying that there was a “consultation process” under way between the University of Venda and the commission, and that he could not comment beyond that.

“The consultation process has not started, but it is going to start,” Baloyi said.

The commission has recommended in its report that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande must be notified of the report and that he “may take any decision deemed appropriate to resolve this matter, taking into account the interest of both the complainant and the university”.

Meanwhile, Tshivhase-Phendla said she has consulted Nzimande, who in turn delegated an official who “promised to take the matter up with the university council”.

Higher education and training departmental spokesperson Khaye Nkwanyana said: “The minister is aware of the matter, but this was a competency of the university council and, as such, the council dealt with the matter. The minister cannot interfere on such matters in any institution. The council as a governing body is the one with a locus standi on those matters.”

The University of Venda responds...

Edward Lambani, the University of Venda’s ­director of legal services, responded in detail to City Press’ questions about the Commission for Gender Equality’s report.

Lambani said the university and the commission were due to meet this month to “discuss and possibly resolve” the matter.

Here are his responses:

“It is denied that Professor Mbati made any romantic advances towards Professor Tshivhase-Phendla at any stage, nor did Professor Mbati inform her that he was romantically interested in her. The nature of the relationship ­between professors Mbati and Tshivhase was strictly professional and there is nothing ­untoward in relation to the vice-chancellor meeting with his deans at his residence.

“It is denied that Professor Mbati grabbed, pushed down and had sexual intercourse with Professor Tshivhase-Phendla. In this regard, we point out that Professor Tshivhase-Phendla at a very late stage in her disciplinary enquiry made this allegation known for the first time. This was done pursuant to numerous years of continuing to be in a collegial professional relationship with Professor Mbati after the alleged rape. Even ­further, the state pronounced that Professor Tshivhase-Phendla’s allegations in this regard could not be prosecuted on as there was no ­evidence to substantiate her allegations.

“Professor Mbati did not demand sex from Professor Tshivhase-Phendla.”

He also denied that Mbati had refused to ­approve or sign Tshivhase-Phendla’s requisitions and other documents. “It is not Professor Mbati’s responsibility to process requisitions as this was the responsibility of her line manager.”

He further denied that Tshivhase-Phendla had been denied permission to attend a “women in politics” conference. “It is unclear what conference is being ­referred to.

“Professor Tshivhase-Phendla was charged and dismissed on allegations relating to misconduct pursuant to a forensic report that was conducted by an independent auditing firm. The ­forensic report indicated that Professor ­Tshivhase-Phendla, along with several other ­senior employees of the university at the time, had conducted themselves in an improper manner and had violated various university policies. Professor Tshivhase-Phendla was not the only employee charged pursuant to the findings in the forensic report,” said Lambani in his three-page response to City Press.

“Professor Tshivhase-Phendla was dismissed as a result of the charges of misconduct against her. An independent chairperson heard and considered evidence presented by the university and by Professor Tshivhase-Phendla and came to the conclusion that Professor Tshivhase-Phendla was guilty of the allegations of misconduct against her and that dismissal was an appropriate sanction as a result of the gross nature of the misconduct.

“Pursuant to her disciplinary enquiry, Professor Tshivhase-Phendla lodged an appeal against the findings at her disciplinary enquiry to the University Council. The University Council, after duly considering her appeal, dismissed the ­appeal and upheld the sanction of dismissal.

“Accordingly, Professor Tshivhase-Phendla’s dismissal was related to her own misconduct. The allegations of rape only arose at the latter part of her disciplinary inquiry.

“It is unclear what the Commission for Gender Equality’s report finding that there was a romantic relationship between Professor Mbati and Professor Tshivhase-Phendla is based on. No ­evidence has been provided to substantiate this, accordingly this finding is disputed.”

Lambani also said that Tshivhase-Phendla was not given a copy of the forensic report outlining the allegations against her because the university regarded the document as “highly confidential”.

“The forensic report implicated various senior employees of the university. Furthermore, the university would not rely on the forensic report for the purposes of the disciplinary hearing against Professor Tshivhase-Phendla, but rather on the verbal evidence of the individuals who had conducted the investigation, which ­individuals Professor Tshivhase-Phendla would have the opportunity of cross-examining. ­Accordingly, the university took a decision not to furnish Professor Tshivhase-Phendla with the said report.”

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