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By Kwazi Dlamini

The University of Zululand (Unizulu) is not new to corruption allegations, harking back to the days of Blade Nzimande as minister of higher education and training, when former Vice-Chancellor Prof Chris De Beer headed up Unizulu. The alleged rife corruption at the institution led to the Department of Higher Education and Training warning that the institution would be put under administration if the corruption problems were not addressed.

The university was indeed put under administration in 2011, and De Beer in his hand-over report included recommendations to issues relating to governance, management and other burning issues at the institution.

Now, fresh allegations of corruption have recently shaken Unizulu. Corruption Watch spoke to the whistle-blower, a former executive member in the finance department at Unizulu.

She has revealed a damning series of irregularities at the university, which also allegedly led to her dismissal from her post. The whistle-blower was appointed executive director of finance in 2015, and soon afterwards she observed the first of several incidents of maladministration when she was asked by the vice-chancellor (VC), Prof Xoliswa Mtose, to approve a loan of R400 000 for a staff member. Under normal circumstances the loan should have gone through the executive committee (exco) for approval – but the whistle-blower was heavily pressurised by Mtose to approve the loan and this led to a sequence of misspent funds.

Other allegations against Mtose include her approval of the purchase of seven houses for executive members at the Zini Golf Estate, to the tune of R35-million. She reportedly failed to follow due process and the houses were not budgeted for – Mtose used funds that were meant for student accommodation and when she approved the purchase of the houses the university had already renovated on-campus houses for the VC and her executive. The VC also awarded a tender without following proper supply chain policies – the whistle-blower alleges that the basic computer literacy tender for first year students was unfairly awarded to LMOSS.

Irregular procurement

Six companies had submitted tenders; Careers IT from Durban, the company that should have won the tender quoted R1.2-million for the work to be done and went on to score 100 points in the BBBEE rating system. Instead, LMOSS from Umtata won the tender despite a quote of R1.7-million and a 58.08 BBBEE rating. The whistle-blower insists that one of the reasons LMOSS got the tender was because it is from Umtata, like Mtose.

Compliance with supply chain policy would mean procuring the services of Careers IT. Instead, a Ms Gevers, the then director of finance, requested the university exco for a deviation of the policy in order to secure the services of LMOSS. In justification Unizulu said the deviation was granted because of an understanding that the Department of Higher Education and Training would revoke the funds for the programme if the tender process had to be started all over again. Had this happened, the institution would not be able to fund the programme as it did not budget for it.

During the exco meeting, only Mtose and Gevers were in favour of the proposed deviation process of supply chain policy. Three other members – Prof R Midgley, Dr IZ Machi and Dr MJG Vinger – did not approve of the deviation process as they all felt that the requirements were not met.

Another exco member, Mr JP Lombard, was in favour of the deviation process but not the procurement of LMOSS, while the last member, Ms N Ngqubekile, was not present at the meeting. This meant that four of six members did not approve the procurement of LMOSS services. Despite this, after the meeting an instruction was given to proceed with LMOSS as agreed with Mtose, who effectively signed the requisition on 3 March 2015.

The whistle-blower revealed that members who were against the procurement of LMOSS were either systemically removed from their positions either by premature contract termination or non-renewal of their contracts.

Before her own dismissal, the whistle-blower had just submitted a report to the university council entailing all the maladministration – this led to her belief that the council was also captured and the situation needed bigger intervention. The whistle-blower proceeded to write to Nzimande, asking him to intervene before the once highly respected institution went bankrupt.

Irregular purchase of executive houses

The whistle-blower revealed that seven houses were purchased for the use of Prof Mtose and her executive team in the upmarket Zini River Gold Estate in Mtunzini, allegedly without any approved budget.

In her defence Mtose said the expense was necessary as it would attract and retain top academics for the institution and added that a council resolution had been passed in 2015 for the purchase of houses to accommodate staff at the executive management level. She made the purchase despite the fact that the Department of Public Works had already been in the process of allocating 10 properties to the university, as confirmed by former finance director Sindy Nsibande, and the only approved budget was for renovations of those houses, which Mtose allegedly rejected, deeming them unfit for occupation.

The whistle-blower further revealed that the VC had signed a deed of sale without authority, which forced the estate agent to engage with the then CFO, our whistle-blower. What worried the whistle-blower about the situation is that the controversial international audit firm KPMG failed to capture this irregularity in its 2015 audited financial report – approximately R26- million spent on these properties was not reported or highlighted as an audit query by KPMG.

The birth of Save Unizulu and subsequent engagements

In a bid to rescue the embattled institution, the whistle-blower together with other former Unizulu staff, students, community members, alumni, and church leaders, established an organisation called ‘Save Unizulu’. Its primary focus is to save the university from disastrous corrupt activities taking place at the institution.

The whistle-blower then wrote several letters to former higher education minister Blade Nzimande and the current minister Naledi Pandor, as well as the Office of the President and Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa. This correspondence was sent after engagements with other civil society groups like Right2Know.

The recent communication to the minister of higher education and training, dated 5 March 2018, was a request of the special audit report of the Unizulu investigation conducted from June to November 2017. The parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Higher Education conducted a site visit and filed a report, but Save Unizulu later established that none of the committee’s recommendations were implemented. Failure of both the minister and portfolio committee to follow up on implementation of the recommendations led Save Unizulu to draft an application to the Constitutional Court to declare the two entities negligent.

Reports on local news outlets revealed that in September 2017 Mtose was charged with corruption and misuse of funds. The case was referred to the Hawks, who launched an investigation into allegations of contravention of the university supply chain policy, wasteful and irregular expenditure, fraud, tender rigging and misrepresentation of qualifications.

In an attempt to save face, Mtose and Unizulu applied for a gag order against the whistle-blower, stopping her from revealing more information to the media. The labour dispute between Unizulu and the whistle-blower continues.

Corruption Watch is following up on developments and will continue to share its findings.

• Image: University of Zululand