UKZN staff prepare for strike

2008-11-14 00:00

A UKZN staff union is preparing for mediation and, if necessary, strike action, after its demand that the university stop appointing outside lawyers to represent the institution in disciplinary cases against its staff members failed to elicit a favourable response by yesterday’s noon deadline.

Strike ballot forms, needed to gauge support for industrial action, have already been sent to members of the UKZN’s National Tertiary Education Staff Union (Ntesu).

However, the union made it clear that a protected strike would be an option only if mediation by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) fails after a declaration of a “dispute of mutual interest”.

In a statement to its 650 members this week, Ntesu notes that a number of members have faced costs in internal inquiries. It cited the recent case of former medical school dean Barry Kistnasamy, which cost R750 000.

Ntesu’s demand comes in the wake of growing unhappiness over the decision by university management to proceed with disciplinary action against senior Pietermaritzburg academics Nithaya Chetty (physics) and John van den Berg (mathematics), who are to face a hearing chaired by senior counsel advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza and prosecuted by a team led by advocate Omar Moosa SC.

The stated reasons behind the union’s demand are the “exorbitant cost to the university” of paying for legal representatives and the cost to employees. “Even if acquitted, the employee may not recover the costs incurred in what may be vindictive or ill-founded charges”, the statement says.

A conservative estimate of the cost to the university of the Chetty/Van den Berg inquiry, set down for five days from December 8, is R250 000. The Ntesu statement said the Chetty/Van den Berg case is already likely to cost some R80 000 for their lawyers”.

Chetty and Van den Berg are accused of failing to exercise “due care” when communicating with the media and breaching the confidentiality of senate. Comments concerning their unhappiness with vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba’s alleged blocking from the senate agenda of a Science and Agriculture faculty submission on academic freedom appeared in several newspapers earlier this year.

The disciplinary action at UKZN has attracted the concern of the Freedom of Expression Institute and the South African Editors’ Forum.

The latest actions taken by Ntesu follow news that a second faculty meeting to discuss the disciplinary action against the two senior academics has been stopped on the advice of the university’s lawyer and registrar.

In a written response to the request for a special board meeting of the Faculty of Humanities, Development and Social Sciences, which was posted on to the university’s online discussion forum, dean Donal McCracken said he was advised by the university lawyer and registrar that such a meeting would be “inappropriate”.

“The reasons for this are that such a meeting has the potential to disrupt the disciplinary process and to interfere with the merits and demerits of the case,” wrote McCracken.

The scuppering of the board meeting comes days after a special assembly of the Science and Agriculture faculty to discuss the action was stopped at the last minute on Tuesday after dean John Cooke heeded advice from the university’s labour relations office.

Attempts to get hold of McCracken this week were unsuccessful. In a statement issued this week, the university’s corporate relations department said it will not communicate with the media on issues related to the disciplinary hearing and called on the parties involved to “respect the process” by refraining from “discussing or debating the merits of the disciplinary action in any public forum, faculty meeting, meeting with other members of staff, and from communicating with the press during the disciplinary hearing process”.

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