University heads cleared of harassment charges

February 2, 2007

Sexual harassment charges against two senior managers of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, levelled by a dean who was being investigated for irregularly awarding her married lover a masters degree, have been dismissed as false by a tribunal.

Pumela Msweli-Mbanga, management studies dean, made the claims in November against Malegapuru Makgoba, the vice-chancellor, and Vincent Maphai, the chair of council. The pair voluntarily relinquished their duties for the period of the investigation, but both have now resumed work. Professor Msweli-Mbanga resigned after the tribunal questioned her credibility.

Professor Msweli-Mbanga laid the charges after an examination found flaws in her awarding of a masters to Kanthan Pillay, the university's chief financial officer.

One investigation conducted by Fatima Meer, an anti-apartheid sociologist, and Sibusiso Bengu, a former Education Minister, also probed the nature of the relationship between professors Msweli-Mbanga and Pillay, and the latter's payment of R80,000 (£5,600) to the former.

The report concluded late last year that Professor Pillay's degree had been falsely obtained, accused the pair of "very corrupt behaviour", slammed Professor Msweli-Mbanga for having a sexual relationship with Professor Pillay when he was her student and recommended that both be fired.

Mac Mia, the acting council chairman, said a three-member independent tribunal chaired by a retired judge, had completed its investigation into the claims of sexual harassment and irregularities in the awarding of Professor Pillay's degree.

The tribunal said it had needed to determine the credibility of Professor Makgoba, Dr Maphai and Professor Msweli-Mbanga to assess whether the harassment charges had substance.

It found Professor Makgoba to be "a generally credible witness, although in some respects we have occasion to criticise his evidence or his conduct".

Four of eight sexual harassment claims - including one that Professor Makgoba had invited Professor Msweli-Mbanga to travel with him to London - were deemed baseless, and the veracity of the others could not be established.

Dr Maphai was found to be a credible witness. The tribunal believed his statement that he had not made remarks of a sexual nature to Professor Msweli-Mbanga or invited her to his hotel room.

On the other hand, it found Professor Msweli-Mbanga to be "a witness without credibility, willing to change her evidence when it suited her".

The management dean resigned immediately.

The tribunal recommended that Professor Pillay's degree be rescinded because of "multiple irregularities" and that he be reprimanded, but it cleared him of direct involvement in the awarding of the degree. It also proposed reprimanding other academics involved in the awarding process.

However, Professor Pillay was fired for other alleged irregularities that are now being probed by a forensic audit. Mr Mia said the council found it unacceptable to have a chief financial officer "who fails to observe the rules and who lies to a council-appointed tribunal". Professor Pillay told reporters that he would take legal action.

Mr Mia added that disciplinary action would be taken against Dev Tewari, deputy dean, Lindsay Mitchell, head of the accounting school, and Dilip Garach, a taxation lecturer, whom the tribunal found to be involved in improperly awarding Professor Pillay's degree.

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