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What happens when universities start to decay: The case for Unisa

29 March 2019

On 13 November 2018, the Daily Maverick published an article written by Professor Belinda Bozzoli, a Member of Parliament and the Democratic Alliance’s shadow Minister for Higher Education and Training, entitled “What happens when universities start to decay: The case for Unisa”.  As a whole, the article is a vituperative attempt to undermine the credibility of the South African Human Rights Commission (‘the Commission’) and shows a patent lack of comprehension of its role and the methodologies employed in the course of its investigations.  Her observations, understood properly in context, recruits the pernicious sentiment that the Commission is moribund and needs resuscitation.  It conveys the message that the Commission does not have the ability and depth to carry out its constitutional and legislative mandate and therefore is not worthy of the respect accorded to it as an institution mandated to carry the vital function of strengthening constitutional democracy.

The Commission as South Africa’s designated ‘A’ status national human rights institution (NHRI), is charged with the responsibility to advance human rights in South Africa.  One of its key roles is that of contributing to the transformation of South Africa into a society in which social justice prevails. The Commission does this unburdened by political exigencies of the day or vested interests. The manner in which the Commission conducts its business is sometimes either highly appreciated or fiercely challenged, depending on who is at the receiving end.  In the UNISA investigation, the Commission opted not to utilise ordinary complaint handling techniques, such as meeting with parties, inspections in loco, sending allegations letters and requests for further particulars, as we realised that there were far too many individuals, groups, departments and human rights issues at hand for this approach to succeed.

The Commission was of the view that this complaint from UNISA could not be resolved by any other means referred to above and that an inquiry would offer an appropriate solution regarding the complaint; and such an inquiry would be in the public interest given that: the human rights issues raised in the  complaint affected numerous individuals, departments and other stakeholders, most of which have not had an opportunity to share their views with the Commission, and an inquiry would allow the input of these affected persons whose participation in the inquiry would assist in bringing clarity as the issues that required attention the Commission’s attention were too numerous and widespread and involved too many proponents and parties to address in a single adverse findings report, alternative dispute resolution process or other method of resolution available to the Commission.

Noting Bozzoli’s criticism in her article, it is relevant to provide a little context about the Commission’s investigation at UNISA. On 11 December 2017, the Commission received a request from the Vice-Chancellor of UNISA, Professor Mandla Makhanya, to “conduct an investigation into allegations and counter-allegations of racism, harassment, bullying and victimisation at UNISA; and advise the university on appropriate interventions to address these challenges”.

Following receipt of the Vice-Chancellor’s request, the Commission held an inquiry in the form of hearings, from 20 February to 18 May 2018, to gather information and evidence of the challenges being faced by UNISA. The inquiry was charged with recommending appropriate interventions to address these allegations and counter-allegations of racism, sexism, harassment bullying and victimisation. The Commission’s inquiry provided a platform for UNISA employees to make submissions with the aim of finding amicable, sustainable and meaningful solutions to the university’s challenges.

This inquiry focused on identifying the factors that contributed to the alleged institutional culture where racism, sexism, harassment and bullying exist and measures that can be undertaken to improve racial cohesion, diversity management and tolerance. The Inquiry Panel gathered information and engaged with every submission, all in aid of developing meaningful and viable recommendations to UNISA management on what can and should not be done to prevent such occurrences from being repeated.

 It must be noted that this was not the first investigation of its kind conducted by the Commission. In 2014, following the death of an African student at the North West University, the Commission conducted an investigation on the state of transformation of institutions of higher learning in South Africa. Employing similar methodologies, as part of its investigation of the matter, the Commission held a series of hearings where stakeholders within the higher education sector, including Vice Chancellors, the student movement, organised labour and the regulatory bodies, were invited to unburden themselves and present solutions to the challenges facing institutions of higher learning in South Africa insofar as transformation is concerned. What emerged from the investigation – at the time - was that 20 years into our democracy, institutionalised racial inequalities within our institutions of higher learning is still alive and well and continues to affect both students and staff from previously disadvantaged groups. The Commission consequently found that efforts to transform our institutions of higher learning had fallen short of what is required to realise the imperatives of the transformation project.

On 12 November 2018, the Commission shared a summary of the outcomes of its inquiry with UNISA management. These outcomes were released to UNISA management and circulated to staff through the internal communication portal. The investigation outcomes were not for public consumption and it is unclear how Prof Bozzoli obtained a copy of a document she was not authorised to view.

It is therefore clear from the article that her knowledge about the Commission and the work it does, is severely limited. So too is her knowledge of the mechanisms and different methodologies employed in every investigation undertaken by the Commission. The Commission will finalise its MOA with UNISA in due course. We will continue to engage meaningfully with UNISA and play a role of support and oversight for as long as needed to ensure that the university accelerates its transformation project and that staff are able to enjoy and respect the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights.

Buang Jones is the Provincial Manager for the South African Human Rights Commission's Gauteng Office



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