Freedom of speech at UKZN: the theory vs the reality

2012-06-05 00:00

SINCE writing the article “UKZN’s Makgoba: another five years” (The Witness, May 14, 2009), I have learnt many things about freedom of expression and the cost of community activism. It is now clear to me that while freedom of expression is guaranteed on paper in the Constitution, in real life freedom after expression is not easily attainable. My main argument was that Professor Malekgapuru Makgoba had done well in bringing institutions of very different backgrounds under one university during his first term. However, taking the university forward required a different ethos, principles and values to guarantee the success of the transformation project and the uncontested desire to make UKZN the premier university of African scholarship.

I arrived at the then University of Natal, Durban campus in 1999 to take up post-graduate studies at Masters level in economic history. I found a close-knit programme run by dedicated staff that inspired me into scholarly engagement and societal activism around issues of social, economic, political and environmental justice. The ease and level at which this group made scholarship and community engagement naturally merge with little effort was very striking. This resonated well with the activist in me and I took the baton and ran as fast as my young (maybe naïve at times) self could manage. With dedication I served in various university and community projects aimed at deepening democracy, academic freedom and transformation of the university.

Unfortunately, my activism brought me into conflict with certain groups who viewed things differently. Starting a family in Durban in 2002, as well as my engagement with communities around KZN, meant Durban would be my home. I decided to pursue doctoral studies at UKZN instead of pursuing other opportunities which were available elsewhere in South Africa and abroad.

I come from a background where university education gave one a voice among the voiceless. This shaped my contribution as a public intellectual in debates on development and transformation. The development and transformation of UKZN as an institution that would drive development in the province, country and continent was important to me. I contributed to debates and activism against a managerial agenda of corporatisation that became apparent from about 2006. A tendency towards management of conflict through expensive and destructive litigation against so-called enemies of transformation, as opposed to enabling a democratic space built around ubuntu, collegial relations and consensus building became the norm. The chosen management style led to a systematic sidelining and emasculation of senior staff and consequently resulted in an exodus of senior academic staff to other universities. I felt then as I still do now, that this undermined academic quality. The academic standards then became different and inferior from those that I experienced on arrival at the institution. Academic freedom was severely restricted.

In March 2011, the public protector advertised a position for the director of the African Ombudsman Research Centre (AORC) which she operates on behalf of the African Ombudsman and Mediators Association (AOMA). This organisation has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with UKZN to host the centre. I applied for this position for which I was subsequently short-listed, interviewed and offered the position. Soon into the position, the vice chancellor of the university expressed his objection to my appointment, suggesting that I had left under a cloud, as indicated in this quote from the public protector’s letter to me.

“Dear Mr Karumbidza

This letter serves to advise you that subsequent to your appointment as director of the African Ombudsman Research Centre, the vice chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Professor M.W. Makgoba, approached me with a complaint raising concerns and his displeasure about your appointment as director at the AORC located at the premises of the university and your presence at the university premises.

“Correspondence received from the university and discussions held with Professor Makgoba are that you left the university under a cloud pending disciplinary action emanating from serious allegations of misconduct against you.”

But I did not leave the university under a cloud in March 2009. The reference to disciplinary process contemplated against me by the university first came to light in this letter. Even when the university responded to my Witness article, which was penned in May 2009 well after I had left UKZN, the university did not use that opportunity to mention this. It is my conclusion that this smoke screen was being raised simply because my presence at the university was an uncomfortable reality, and intended to keep me out of employment. However, the public protector’s letter made me realise why my efforts between 2009 and 2011 to return to UKZN in positions for which I qualified had been unsuccessful.

Once I left the university, I was placed on an infamous list of individuals considered persona non grata. My departure had to do with unmet expectations of a full-time appointment following the completion of PhD studies and positive probation and teaching reviews, as contemplated in a development contract that had been arranged between my school and human resources. I am a non-South African but permanent resident and could not be part of a Living Essentials Apprentice Programme (Leap) initiated to structure the employment of black graduates involved in the teaching programmes of the university. I became a victim of the politics of attrition at school level resulting from differences on many issues that came with new school leadership, as well as my outspoken and activist engagement. I made pronouncements on issues relating to transformation, academic freedom and opening up of the democratic space and programmes meant to improve student experiences. This put me on a collision course with some sectors of management, to a point where I was advised not to “bite the hand that feeds me”.

I was not surprised that the vice chancellor would find my presence at UKZN objectionable, but I felt that the involvement of the public protector would lead to an inquiry into governance issues and the existence of a list of banned people in a post-apartheid dispensation. My biggest disappointment was that the public protector chose to limit herself to a technical legal argument around disclosure or non-disclosure of the so-called bad relations claimed by the vice chancellor. The Memorandum of Understanding between UKZN and AOMA does not require that UKZN approves the staffing of the centre. If the approval of the VC was important, the public protector would have made the courtesy call to the university before offering me the job, especially as I had stated that going back to UKZN was for me “a return home”. It was indeed a return home as UKZN and KZN are the greater part of my South African experience in many ways. Needless to say, owing to the pressure from UKZN, my employment with the centre was brought to an end on May 31, 2012, and part of the remainder of my contract period will be paid.

The recent call by Kamal Panday and the UKZN Concerned Citizens Group for the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande as well as the public protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, to investigate alleged abuses at UKZN might have come too late but is welcome. While I support the call by others for an independent investigation at UKZN and the suggestion that the public protector’s intervention could be necessary, I accept this wisdom under check and only because on the balance of probabilities, the public protector is less compromised when compared to the university council, whose chairperson Mac Mia has already made pronouncements before the completion (if not commencement) of investigations into perjury allegations raised against the VC stemming from a corruption case against the university’s former dean of management studies, Pumela Msweli-Mbanga. During the court case, Makgoba is alleged to have lied about his role in supervising the thesis of a doctoral student.

• Dr Blessing Karumbidza is writing a book on his UKZN and AORC experiences. He will be taking up a post-doctoral fellowship with Oxford University this month.

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