Culture clash

Alfred Moleah's American management style won him few friends at the University of the Transkei. Simon Dagut reports.

When Alfred Moleah, a Johannesburg-born political scientist who has spent most of his life in the United States, arrived to take up his post of vice-chancellor of the University of the Transkei (Unitra) in 1994 he was appalled by litter on the campus and the lackadaisical staff. On his first visit to the building labelled “library” he could not find the books and had to ask a student where they were kept. He found them, kept in conditions that were “horrible”, on the third and fourth floors of the building, which was otherwise used as office space. The book stock was inadequate and it was the only university library in South Africa not to have a computerised catalogue. Walking around the library, he noticed students lying on the floor, “eating and talking and everything else”. He assumed that this was because of a shortage of workspace but found that rows of desks and chairs stood empty. What Unitra needed, he quickly concluded, was not just more resources and more energetic and skilful management but a general reformation of attitudes.

The contrast with affluent Temple University in Philadelphia where Moleah had spent the previous 23 years could hardly have been greater. The University of the Transkei began life as the Umtata satellite campus of the famous Fort Hare and gained university status in 1976 as part of the apparatus of statehood with which Pretoria attempted to lend plausibility to the idea of Transkeian independence. Built in a style described by its detractors as “bantustan brutalism”, the people who work there nevertheless say that it has at least the merit of a rational and fairly compact design, which creates plenty of opportunity for people from all the departments of the university to meet and talk during the course of a day. Unitra is the sort of place where nothing can be secret for long, where news spreads rapidly and, in the process, is thoroughly distorted by rumour.

Closely related to its friendliness and isolation is the importance of ethnicity. Transkeian identity is a powerful rallying point, perhaps most particularly among the middle class who formed the vast majority of the staff of the homeland’s bureaucracy and, of course, its university. Naturally, according to its mission statement, Unitra is non-discriminatory on every possible ground, ethnicity included, except where affirmative action is required. According to its academic registrar, Dr Peggy Luswazi, the popularity of staff at Unitra is measured only by the extent to which they are prepared to contribute positively to the development of the university. Current members of the university administration who are not Xhosa-speakers are more circumspect. They report that friendliness is the norm and that overt hostility is rare, but they do have a powerful sense that being a different sort of South African, let alone someone from elsewhere in Africa, creates a permanent barrier to entry into the innermost circles of influence at Unitra. A senior representative of non-Transkeian academic staff says that while Unitra’s hard core of self-conscious Transkeians are not racist or Africanist (in a chauvinist sense), they are very intense localists: “They don’t like Africans from the other side of the Kei river very much and they don’t like Africans from the other side of the Limpopo at all.”

Unitra, what is more, is the largest single employer in Umtata. Conditions of employment have been among the best in the region. The salaries of administrative and maintenance staff, though not large by wider South African standards, are very good in local terms. Packages generally include housing subsidies, pensions and medical aid. They also include a generous scheme for the subsidisation of study by members of staff and their families at Unitra and other South African universities. In return for all this, staff do not typically have to work very hard. Standards of productivity are very low in the administration. There are, reliable sources say, academics who are scarcely to be seen on the campus from month to month. Even Nehawu representatives agree that the university is considerably overstaffed at all levels.

The new vice-chancellor used his traditional welcome address to staff and students to give them a thorough scolding, which he then had printed and distributed to those who had missed it. “Our campus is unsafe. Theft is rampant; assaults are common and even the heinous crime of rape occurs. Vandalism has left its ugly mark all over our campus. Littering is our most visible disgrace. We seem to have accepted filth and squalor as the natural condition of Africans. By this acceptance we confirm and affirm apartheid,” he said. Those university employees who did not work hard had “no place at Unitra — you do not belong here”. For members of Nehawu he had this pithy message: “Unions must not be protectors of the irresponsible and the lazy.” He told academic staff that he wanted to send “junior faculty members back to school” for further training. The following year, he reported himself displeased with the slow rate at which academics were improving their qualifications and was especially unhappy about his audience’s lack of enthusiasm for the Commonwealth and USAid scholarships that he had arranged to be offered to Unitra academics.

Moleah scorned “soft” degrees that only produced unemployable graduates. This alienated the less qualified and most authentically Transkeian academic staff, though he retained the affection of students, who are drawn predominantly from the rural poor and, though anxious about fees, are not very politicised. They were prepared to tolerate the scoldings of this avuncular figure given his evident concern for their welfare. In his first years at Unitra, Moleah moved quickly to build more and better student accommodation, appointed a co-ordinator to run sports and fitness programmes for students and agitated for the construction of a students’ union building. Students, he recalls, were often quite literally bored out of their minds, drank to excess, menaced and even raped female colleagues and, on at least one occasion, became so drunk that they fell to their death from the windows of the residences.

However, two other important campus constituencies, the administrators and the council, quickly came to dislike him. In his search for efficiency, Moleah put together a management team with little regard for the established bureaucratic hierarchy or the university’s statutory structure of committees that he described as moribund. Moleah felt he had good reason to distrust the established managers of the university. If, for example, he heard on the university grapevine that a full-time lecturer had not been seen on the campus for a month or two, he would write to the dean of the faculty concerned but nothing would be done until he had called the dean to his office and demanded action in person. He chose people he felt would be loyal and efficient. That they were often junior in rank, or inexperienced, or non-Transkeian, was of no interest to him. The most prominent of these people was Norman Bunn, whom Moleah chose as his technical services manager in charge of all Unitra’s physical infrastructure and tendering. This arrangement by-passed several university committees and, it seems safe to suppose, well-established networks of convenience and profit associated with the university’s purchasing of goods and services. According to Moleah, at least, this system of private, ethnically organised understandings and shortcuts pervades the university.

While each of these by-pass techniques on its own greatly increased the vice-chancellor’s capacity to get things done, together they created the impression that Moleah was deliberately and contemptuously isolating himself from the university community outside his chosen “little team”. Moleah seems to have alienated a majority of the university’s board of governors, the council, even more quickly than the bulky and inefficient Unitra bureaucracy. He recalls that his discomfort began at the first council meeting where he felt that the chairwoman, Fatima Meer, became “visibly angry at any sign of dissent”. Meer is a prominent academic, activist and friend of Winnie Mandela. After the meeting, he warned her that when he disagreed with her, he would make their differences known openly and vigorously. Another influential council member was Brigalia Bam, now chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission, while Deputy President Thabo Mbeki is the university’s chancellor.

The three most important areas of difference between Unitra’s vice-chancellor and its council concerned:
n whether Professor Rachel Gumbi of the medical faculty and a staff member of council was acting improperly by taking a paying job during a period of leave from the university;
n whether Nehawu representatives should be entitled to sit on committees concerned with academic appointments;
n the nature of Moleah’s relationship with his deputy, Professor Justice Noruwana.
The Gumbi controversy dragged on from 1995 to 1997 after it was drawn to Moleah’s attention, through informal channels, that Gumbi had taken a full-time job in the department of health in Pretoria during a paid period of leave from Unitra. Gumbi argued that she was just a part-time consultant. From Moleah’s point of view, though, this was a simple case of “double-dipping” — something he would not tolerate in any member of staff and certainly not in a member of council. He sought to dismiss her.

She appealed to the council of which she was a member. According to Moleah, they attempted illegitimately to defend her. The case generated a flurry of court orders, interdicts and counter-interdicts. He refused to let the university pay the council members’ legal costs, and the council retaliated by suspending him. But Moleah was able to show that the council had acted beyond its powers because the statute that established the council had lapsed before it attempted to remove him. On the wings of a court order, therefore, he returned to Unitra. A new council was elected, minus Meer and with Dumisa Ntsebeza, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s chief investigator, in its chair, but otherwise with many of the same faces.

The details of these elaborate and protracted manoeuvrings are less important that what they reveal about Moleah. Unheeding of the informal linkages which bind the “struggle elite”, he entered into a conflict over legal costs with members of council who had personal connections with Deputy President Mbeki’s office. As a result Moleah was summoned with Dumisa Ntsebeza to discuss the matter with Advocate Mojanku Gumbi (no relation to Professor Gumbi), the influential legal advisor to the deputy president. Moleah refused to pay the legal bills concerned out of Unitra’s funds, as Advocate Gumbi requested. In this he was completely within his rights.

By the end of 1995 the unionised non-academic staff had become apprehensive about Moleah’s approach but he had not yet estranged Unitra’s rank-and-file trade unionists, probably because he presided over the extension of housing allowances to non-academic workers. What he had done, though, was severely to annoy the Nehawu leadership, who were also represented in the council. In public, Moleah told Unitra’s unionised workers that he expected them to be more productive. In private he says, “I was literally horrified by the dominance of the union. I was at Temple University for 23 years. I never knew the name of the union person. He had his sphere. At Unitra, the union was all over. They were dominating council, they were poking their noses in everything.”

Moleah’s first clash with the Nehawu leadership occurred on the issue of whether the union should be represented on committees responsible for making academic appointments. Mxoleli Nkuhlu, the union’s leader on campus and a relation of the previous vice-chancellor, speaks of “ensuring fairness” and his union’s presence being “in keeping with the democratic ethos”. The council also felt that permitting Nehawu to speak on academic appointments would increase the union’s “sense of ownership” of Unitra. It is also possible that this branch of Nehawu wanted to try to prevent the appointment of too many academic staff from the wrong side of the Kei. A much wider African and overseas academic recruitment drive was certainly one of Moleah’s goals. Having access to the committee process, to letters of application, CVs and applicants’ interviews would certainly go a long way towards helping the union to keep things local. Moleah’s response was “over my dead body.” Here too, he was entirely within his rights, but his brusque refusal cost him support from council and the union leadership.

In the case of Professor Justice Noruwana, it appears that Moleah quickly identified his deputy as the figurehead of what he calls “the old Transkei”, an embodiment of all the inertia and cosy arrangements which so displeased him. Whether or not this perception was accurate, the vice-chancellor acted upon it and had, by late 1995, apparently succeeded in depriving Noruwana of access to the levers of power by changing the way in which Unitra was run. Noruwana seems to have feared that Moleah would move from sidelining him to firing him and took the renewal of his contract to the council, of which he too was a member. Although this dispute was eventually patched up, when the council decided to suspend Moleah in March 1997 one of the strongest supporters of the move was Noruwana. According to a well-informed source, he even stood at the gate of the university with the security guards to ensure that Moleah would be prevented from re-entering the campus. However, once Moleah had been reinstated, their relations deteriorated absolutely, leading to the extraordinary garage saga.

Among the amenities of the campus is ample parking for staff, including a roomy lock-up garage intended for the exclusive use of the vice-chancellor. Before his suspension, Moleah had not objected to sharing his garage with his deputy but, understandably if rather on the same level of pettiness as Noruwana’s stint of guard-duty, decided that the continued sharing of his garage could no longer be tolerated.

According to Moleah, there were two further reasons for his desire to have Noruwana’s car out of his garage. First, the remote control used to open this garage also opened the gates to the vice-chancellor’s house and Moleah was no longer comfortable with the idea of so implacable an enemy as Noruwana having such easy access to his home. Second, he had been told through the university rumour mill that Noruwana — or Noruwana’s supporters — had consulted witchdoctors and obtained a “muti” which they were applying to Moleah’s car in the belief that this would cause Moleah to have a fatal accident. Moleah is not a believer in witchcraft, but was concerned that when Noruwana and his supporters realised that their spells were having no effect, they might attempt more material interventions, such as tampering with his car’s brakes.

He therefore requested Noruwana in writing to hand over his remote control and park somewhere else. Noruwana then took to parking his car across Moleah’s garage door — a practice that Moleah claims he did not immediately notice because he kept much longer office hours than his deputy. The vice-chancellor wrote another letter to Noruwana, requesting that he park in the space that had been assigned for his use. He refused. Moleah then ordered Norman Bunn to call a towing company to remove Noruwana’s car. A crowd of people described by Moleah as “Noruwana’s Nehawu supporters”, however, prevented the tow-truck from doing its job.

Unfortunately, it was not possible to interview Noruwana. No doubt, his version of the garage story is very different. Sources other than Moleah confirm that Noruwana did block the entrance to Moleah’s garage by parking across it. However, it strains the bounds of the credible that Noruwana, whose doctorate is from Columbia University in New York, would be inclined to employ “muti” or, for that matter, seriously contemplate sabotaging his vice-chancellor’s car in any other way. The veracity or otherwise of this story is less important than the fact that it was common knowledge at Unitra. The tale of the vice-chancellor’s garage may seem merely an example of the absurd rumour-mongering which universities can generate but in its clash of American management and Transkeian cultures, it encapsulates much of the university’s recent history.

In 1997 Moleah had won his reinstatement in court, but he had not addressed the underlying reasons for the hostility against him. Of course, given his character and his management style, he was unlikely to have been able to do so. When, therefore, the external pressure on Unitra built to unprecedented levels the following year, he had only his “little team” on his side, and they were not enough to prevent him from being forced out.

As early as 1995 Moleah had predicted, “the government’s tendency is and will be to cut allocations, and there is very little we can do about it.” According to Unitra’s internal newsletter, Unitra News, the government subsidy accounted for 99.9 per cent of all the university’s budgeted needs in 1996. This declined to 83.9 per cent in 1997 and to 63.4 per cent the following year, as a government squeeze at “historically disadvantaged institutions” (HDIs) took effect. Obviously, Unitra’s fortunes fall with those of the South African economy and with changes in the pattern of government spending, but there are also more specific reasons for this decline. After several years of funding such HDIs at much higher levels than the formerly “white” universities, the ministry lost patience and adopted the policy of attempting to force them to change for the better by increasing financial pressure. In addition to the difficulties created by this policy decision, Unitra’s student numbers have declined by more than a third since the mid-1990s. Since part of formula on which its funding depends is based on student numbers, the university finds itself in a spiral of decline.
Undaunted by these challenges, Moleah faced 1998 with a clear knowledge of what would have to be done. He announced that students would not be permitted to register unless they had paid their fees; staff were informed that housing subsidies would be reduced, the education subsidy curtailed and that there would have to be a large number of non-academic retrenchments.

A vice-chancellor who had the support of his council, the university bureaucracy, academic staff and responsible student and union leaders might perhaps have pulled this programme off. Moleah, by contrast, quickly found that Unitra was getting out of control. Large-scale student protest began in February last year. By April, the campus saw daily clashes between police and students. One student, who had apparently been in ill health, died as a result of teargas inhalation.

At the start of the Easter holiday, the entire SRC was arrested for defying an interdict, but violent and destructive protest continued until the residences were forcibly closed and the students sent home. When students returned, protests resumed and escalated. In late May, an unsuccessful attempt was made to petrol-bomb the financial registrar’s car. According to the Daily Dispatch, it was only quick police intervention, made possible by the fact that they were by now on standby on the campus round the clock, that prevented many more cars and possibly the great hall from being seriously damaged. The following night, the vice-chancellor’s dining-room was successfully petrol-bombed. Perhaps one reason for the change in the style of protest from students toyi-toyi-ing and relatively mild vandalism to more serious violence was Moleah’s announcement in March that large-scale retrenchments would have to be completed by the end of the year. This seems to have prompted workers to join the students in protest.

At the end of May, the minister of education Sibusiso Bengu, visited the campus and successfully negotiated an end to the violence. In return for the lifting of all interdicts on students and a promise to appoint an independent assessor (Louis Skweyiya, SC), students and workers returned to their classes and their jobs.
The pressure on Moleah, however, did not abate. In July and August, an attempt was made to suggest that Dumisa Ntsebeza had corruptly benefited from the renting of his house in Umtata for the accommodation of Cuban doctors employed at the Unitra medical school. This allegation, which the Skweyiya report found to be baseless, was made against Ntsebeza because he was widely considered to be an ally of Moleah. A private letter of rather good advice to Moleah from Ntsebeza was also intercepted and publicised as “proof” of some sort of conspiracy between them. In August, a “banner-waving” group of Nehawu members, other Unitra staff and students demanded the resignations of both men. In September, the council voted to urge Minister Bengu to suspend Moleah. Given that the power to suspend the vice-chancellor rests with the council, this was an odd move, but perhaps they had come to suspect that Moleah would respond to a motion to suspend him with one of his interdicts. In fact, when they screwed up the courage to try it the next month, that is exactly what happened.

Meanwhile, the vice-chancellor pressed on. In mid-September he announced that since eight months of negotiation with the union had produced no concrete result, over 500 non-academic staff were to be retrenched. The rumour-mill hit back with the allegation, naturally taken very seriously by Nehawu’s leadership, that Moleah had hired a sniper to do away with the Nehawu leader, Mxoleli Nkuhlu. In October, Advocate Skweyiya arrived and began to gather the evidence that would finally separate Unitra and Alfred Moleah. In early November, Moleah hired outside contractors to replace the workers who had been retrenched. Nehawu protested and prevented members from applying for jobs with the contractors as had been arranged by Unitra’s management. On November 14, the university council having failed to ratify the dismissals, the Labour Court overturned them. This was the final blow for Moleah. From this date his interest seems to have turned, entirely understandably, from fighting for progress to fighting for a retrenchment package.

The Skweyiya report was released on November 20. Though acknowledging that Unitra’s troubles had roots in a shortage of resources and in the vacillations of successive councils, it placed a high proportion of the blame for the institution’s troubles on Moleah and his management team. Moleah was portrayed rather in the style of a mad tsar — isolated, defensive and paranoid. His use of a closed-circuit television system to monitor the passage outside his office, for instance, was described as “very unhealthy”. “It negates an open-door policy and also violates, to some extent, the rights of privacy of his colleagues.” Given that the vice-chancellor had recently had a private letter published by unknown hands and that his open door had admitted a petrol bomb and numerous toyi-toyi-ing groups of students and workers, these were, at the very least, somewhat uncharitable observations.
It cannot be denied, however, that Moleah’s personal and management style lent these accusations a degree of plausibility.

By December Moleah had left for Johannesburg, ruing the day that he had taken the Unitra job. At the moment, the matter is in the hands of lawyers, but Unitra does not seem disposed to pay Moleah more than what remains of his salary until his contract ends in July. E.D. Malaza has taken over as acting vice-chancellor. The skilful and steely Nkuhlu, all interdicts against him lifted, is back on campus as “permanent shop steward on special assignment”. He is often to be found in consultation with deputy vice-chancellor Noruwana.

The removal of Moleah has not solved any of Unitra’s underlying problems. In fact, it has almost certainly damaged Unitra’s chances of survival as an autonomous institution. Though probably not at risk of complete closure, it is quite possible that once the election is out of the way it will be merged with the University of Fort Hare or into a larger University of the Eastern Cape.
To a great extent, then, Moleah’s time as vice-chancellor must be said to have ended in defeat. However, the Unitra that he left is, despite all its difficulties, a university with a number of considerable strengths. Remarkably for so isolated, obscure and turbulent an institution, its academic quality and relevance to its surroundings place it on a par with the University of Durban-Westville or the University of the Western Cape, rather than at the bottom of the league with the Universities of Venda or Turfloop.

A lot of this is Moleah’s legacy. To those aspects of the university that are energetic and progressive such as the science departments, he provided as much support as he could. He created pockets of dynamism where none had previously existed. Moleah revitalised the Unitra Foundation to gather private funds for the university and built a new library. At the moment it stands very near completion and he had, he says, secured funding from the Development Bank to finish the job. He is certain that with a few more months in office, it would have been completed and, at last, computerised. As things are at the moment, Unitra will go into the next millennium with a temporarily contented Nehawu branch and a cramped card-catalogue library.