THE South African government is to use new powers under the higher education act to probe allegations of mismanagement and corruption at the universities of Venda and Transkei, and Vaal Triangle Technikon.
Independent assessors have been selected by the council for higher education, a stakeholder body set up last month to advise the government on tertiary education, to investigate problems that have beset two of the institutions for many months.
Last week Sibusiso Bengu, the education minister, said he would appoint one assessor each to probe the University of the Transkei and Vaal Triangle Technikon, where "governance has broken down".
The choice of two assessors will be made between advocate Louis Skweyiya and professors Stuart Saunders and Jaap Durant.
Mr Bengu was reported by the national paper, Business Day, as saying that once their terms of reference were finalised the assessors would have 30 days rapidly to probe the institutions, using minimal staff because the state was "strapped of cash".
He said he wanted the council to suggest further investigators to look into other troubled tertiary institutions.
Transkei rector Alfred Moleah has been accused of undemocratic management, but Mr Bengu said there were other problems at the university. Last year Vaal rector Aubrey Mokadi was suspended by the technikon council amid accusations of corruption and maladministration.
Mr Bengu said that the council had been given time "to sort itself out" but had failed.
Earlier in the month the green light was given by a government gazette proclamation to investigate allegations against University of Venda vice-chancellor Gessler Nkondo.
It is bringing in Judge Willem Heath, who heads a special investigating unit that looks into cases involving possible abuse of state assets or funds.
In the proclamation, Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's deputy president, asked the unit to investigate allegations that Professor Nkondo misused a credit card and made appointments and promoted people against "the interests of the university" and the orders of senate and council.
The Heath unit confirmed that it would investigate a credit card with a Rd50,000 (Pounds 5,000) limit that Professor Nkondo allegedly authorised for himself without council's approval. The inquiry is also believed to involve consultants appointed by Professor Nkondo in 1995, costing the university hundreds of thousands of rand.
Professor Nkondo has been in trouble before. He left the University of the North in 1993 when it emerged that the doctorate from Yale University he quoted on his curriculum vitae had been withdrawn because of plagiarism. So has Venda, writes R. W. Johnson, director of the Helen Suzman Foundation in Johannesburg.
In an article in Focus magazine he reports that Venda's first two rectors, both Afrikaners, were dismissed, one for nepotism and corruption. He goes on to describe a host of irregularities around Nkondo's appointment and tenure, which he alleges has been characterised by cronyism, student unrest, unwarranted staff dismissals and heavy-handed leadership.
Venda staff have been trying for years to have the university investigated, but nothing happened until an academic approached the Heath unit. The education department argues that it only became able legally to use assessors once the council was established. When this was achieved it moved fast to use the new powers.
Venda inquiry, page 16