Raised eyebrows at job offers for the Aristides

October 15, 2004

Deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his wife, Mildred, have been appointed honorary research fellows in the politics department at the distance-learning University of South Africa (Unisa).

Dr Aristide and his family fled Haiti in February after the former Catholic cleric, widely accused of being a dictator, was deposed. Violence in Haiti has continued since then, with Aristide supporters accused of killing seven police personnel in recent weeks.

The South African Government accepted a request from the Caribbean community to offer the Aristides asylum, and they moved to Pretoria in May.

The family is living at the Government's expense, which opposition parties condemn.

This month, Mathews Phosa, Unisa's council chairman, said it was the university's prerogative to decide who to employ. Barney Pityana, the university principal, confirmed the appointments. He said: "We hope to offer them an environment conducive to pursuing their academic careers. The university is delighted to be associated with their efforts."

Professor Pityana added: "Dr Aristide has an abiding interest in academic life and development. His attachment to Unisa will give him the opportunity to undertake research and publish in learned journals."

Mrs Aristide, who is already attached to Unisa's Centre for African Renaissance Studies, is a lawyer who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and practised in the US. She chaired Haiti's Council on Aids and "has an academic interest in HIV/Aids policy", Professor Pityana said.

He said the African renaissance centre's multidisciplinary nature would enable Mrs Aristide to "advance her varied academic interests in research and teaching".

The appointments have been controversial. Solidarity, a trade union representing staff at Unisa, said that while local academics were leaving the country because of the lack of opportunities, Unisa was offering jobs "to a controversial political figure and his wife". Spokesperson Dirk Hermann said: "It is clear that merit played no part in these appointments."

Helen Zille, education spokesperson for the official Opposition Democratic Alliance, said the party had submitted parliamentary questions on the appointments to Naledi Pandor, the Education Minister. "The appointment of a dictator with a record of human rights abuses at Unisa by Professor Pityana, former chair of the South African Human Rights Commission, is incongruous," Mrs Zille said.

The alliance, she said, would ask the minister whether the positions had been advertised, whether other people had been interviewed, whether the Aristides were qualified for the posts, how much they would be paid and who was paying their salaries.

Unisa said that Dr Aristide had "qualifications in theology, philosophy and psychology obtained at universities in Haiti and Rome".

Mrs Zille added that the Government's welcoming of the Aristides was politically damaging. "South Africa's image as the torch-bearer for human rights and democracy in the developing world will be tarnished further if it emerges that the Arisitides have been handed cushy jobs at one of our most prestigious academic institutions."

The Government argued - along with Dr Aristide - that the Haitian leader had fallen victim to US-sanctioned "regime change" and had been forcibly removed from Haiti, a charge that the US has denied. South Africa has supported a United Nations probe into events surrounding his departure.

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