Mangosuthu Technikon

As another vice-chancellor comes to grief, Cheryl Goodenough explains why staff at the Umlazi college united against him.

ON AUGUST 12 this year, in a scene more reminiscent of a South African campus in the 1980s, security guards fired teargas and rubber bullets at demonstrating students at Mangosuthu Technikon in Durban’s Umlazi township. Three students and a member of staff were injured in the melee, during which live bullets were also fired. The students’ grievance was an unusual one: they were demanding that the technikon resolve its dispute with the staff, who had been on strike for four weeks, so that they could resume their seriously disrupted education.

This incident prompted the new education minister Kader Asmal into action. A few days later he descended on the campus and announced that he had appointed an independent assessor, Professor Jaap Durand, to investigate how matters at the technikon had come to such a pass and to make recommendations. Durand, a former deputy vice chancellor at the University of the Western Cape, had carried out a similar investigation into the Vaal Triangle Technikon last year.

Durand duly published his report on Mangosuthu Technikon in early October and recommended that the ruling council should dismiss the vice-chancellor, Professor Aaron Ndlovu. Effective academic and administrative functioning was impossible, he concluded, while Ndlovu remained in office.

This disastrous turn of events has occurred in what should have been a year of celebration for Mangosuthu Technikon. Founded just 20 years ago with R7.5million donated by South African companies, including the Anglo American Corporation, it is sited in Umlazi, the sprawling township just south of Durban. Although it has suffered minor disruptions in the past — in 1995, for example, the technikon was closed for 10 days because students demanded the expulsion of several allegedly racist teachers and in another incident complaints against the rector and vice-rector led to departmental inquiries — it has served its community well. Student numbers increased steadily until capacity was reached, with about 6,000 students registering each semester for the past three years. To cater for more students eight new lecture theatres were built in 1996 and a new wing will open next year. The technikon now has 19 departments that offer a choice of 25 qualifications in three faculties — engineering, management sciences and natural sciences. This year 1,030 students graduated compared to only 147 ten years earlier.

Until 1996 the technikon’s senior administration and academic staff were predominantly white, but early that year the council appointed a 26-member Broad Transformation Forum as a result of which Ndlovu, the institution’s first black principal and vice-chancellor, was appointed. He began work in January 1997. His qualifications for the job were in every way outstanding. Born in Colenso, northern Natal in 1944, he graduated with BA degrees in both political science and public administration from the University of Zululand. He went on to do graduate work at the University of Durban-Westville and gained a PhD in public administration and then returned to teach at his alma mater for some 20 years. Politically he is firmly ANC, helping in the early 1990s to set up an interim political structure for the party in northern KwaZulu-Natal and advising it on aspects of the public service during the constitutional negotiations.

Ndlovu, at that stage an extreme radical and apparent supporter of Harry Gwala, the controversial ANC and South African Communist Party boss of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, was ousted from leadership of the ANC’s northern KwaZulu-Natal section shortly before the 1994 election in an internal party coup. This coup was engineered by the powerful Cosatu organisation based at Richards Bay. Ndlovu protested bitterly and attempted to hang on, but party headquarters was firmly behind the move. His ousting ensured that the northern section swung its support behind Jacob Zuma, thus defeating Gwala’s bid to become leader of the provincial ANC. This coup severely dented Ndlovu’s political career but paved the way for the growing détente between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party, a détente that would have been impossible if Gwala had been elected. It also provided Zuma with the base from which he has gone on to be deputy president. Ndlovu cried foul but an internal party inquiry confirmed that it had all been above board.

His career in politics over, in 1996 Ndlovu was appointed to the Presidential Review Commission on the transformation and reform of the public service (resigning for personal reasons in 1997) and then came the appointment to the technikon. Here he set about his new task with enthusiasm. As one colleague put it: “He had his own pride in Mangosuthu Technikon. He would say, for example, why should we as a black institution put up with mediocre funding and mediocre attitudes from the world. We need to work for something better. We must have pride.”

A man of high standards and a stickler for discipline, Ndlovu began by improving security on a campus that had been riddled with petty theft. The Durand report describes the situation Ndlovu inherited thus: “There seems to have been a happy hour when students raided the food stores with impunity, while shebeens were openly allowed to operate in the residences. Theft of equipment, especially computers was rife.” Ndlovu ordered a series of corrective measures, including the searching of vehicles at the campus gates, as a result of which crime dropped, much to the approval of the commanding officer of the local police station.

He was not immune to the problems of the students, however. Nearly half the 6,000 registered students receive loans, either from government funding or private donors. Most of the students are drawn from Umlazi, where 60 per cent of households have no fixed monthly income and illiteracy rates are high, and a good number come from rural KwaZulu-Natal. The steady increase in the latter group has led to residences, already filled to capacity, overflowing so that some 500 students effectively squat there. This year the technikon bought a former hotel for additional accommodation, but management has been forced to turn a blind eye to the “squatters” because it can offer them no alternative.

As well as discipline, Ndlovu made it clear from the outset that he was committed to transformation, improvements in general administration and, above all, greater productivity from staff. He believed that as a public institution the technikon should be used all the time, in the evenings and the academic holidays. To this end he set about rationalising annual leave. In the past administrative staff had been entitled to 45 days leave a year, but this was badly supervised. Staff would take holidays when the students were not there and want their annual leave as well. Ndlovu proposed a 22-day leave cycle in addition to 10 days over Christmas when the technikon closed. The lower level staff were put on the same system, and they benefited from the change, going from 15 to 22 days leave plus the 10 at Christmas.

Although the technikon finances had always been well managed, Ndlovu secured further improvements. He also set about academic restructuring, regrouping the existing departments into three faculties and creating more posts for senior lecturers. According to one administrator who worked closely with him “This lessened the teaching loads to allow people to do more research. However, it remains a problem that not all posts available have been filled. For example, in engineering the candidates were just not there. The other problem is that when black appointments are made these people are often quickly snapped up by someone else.”

Writing about the restructuring of the past year, Ndlovu says “Staff can now ensure their own promotion through performance. A lecturer who qualifies will be elevated to that higher position without having to wait for someone senior to retire or pass away.
“The primary reason for academic restructuring was to improve opportunities for academic achievement, for research, publication and presentation of papers, and participation in conferences. To this end we reduced to the optimal level the volume of teaching work carried by academics and created the opportunity for a thorough evaluation of the quality of our programmes and tutorials. This new structure facilitates the entry of members of disadvantaged communities into the academic mainstream. We have drawn in our best students as junior lecturers and have attracted high-calibre people from outside. While we have created conditions for the rapid improvement of qualifications, we still have the bulk of our academics in the lower levels. We are planning to set up a research unit for the year 2000, to provide tutelage assistance and direction for young researchers to draw on the experience of more established ones.”

Ndlovu was well aware of the backlash that well-meant reform can produce. In his May 1997 inaugural address he went out of his way to allay fears. “Good plans are nothing in themselves: to acquire significance they must be implemented. This in turn requires a measure of acceptance from all levels of the institution. While the process of change can be an exciting and energising experience, it can also be an exhausting and enervating ordeal,” he said. Although wholeheartedly behind transformation, he was also adamant from the outset that the technikon was expanding and that no one would lose a job, and this seems to have been the case. Writing in the 1997 annual report he said: “Rationalisation must be carefully planned in the light of the inequalities and imbalances of the past as well as future needs. Rationalisation should not be a knee-jerk response to short-term financial constraints.”

Despite this understanding of the difficulties of change, Ndlovu seems to have seriously underestimated the sensitivities and power of Nutesa (the National Union of Technikon Employees). The Nutesa branch at Mangosuthu Technikon was formed from a merger of the academic union and the administration union and represents all staff from cleaners, to lecturers and senior administrative staff. Most of its members are black, though its current president, Louise Marais, is white. It is an old-fashioned, non-political union that concentrates on bread-and-butter issues and achieving better working conditions for its members. Thus, as the Durand report explains, the previous management had a “gentleman’s agreement” with the staff that they should work from 8 to 4 without any lunch break on Mondays to Thursdays, so that they could go home at 1pm on Fridays. But the report notes, “It is common cause that most of the staff in any case took time off for lunch.” (When I tried to phone the technikon after 1pm on a Friday, there was indeed no one there.) As the only union on campus, Nutesa is a force to be reckoned with and thus it did matter very much that management became embroiled in a number of disputes with the union.

The first issue was the formal recognition agreement that Nutesa had asked for in 1997. This became a protracted dispute, for the two sides could not agree on the detailed wording of the agreement and there seem to have been many delays on the management’s side. Whether those delays were a deliberate tactic or simply the result of having other more pressing tasks is obscure.
Another dispute concerned the union’s representation on the technikon’s governing council. It was reconstituted in terms of the new Technikons Act in 1997 and membership was increased from 24 to 30 to improve parent and student representation and to encourage community involvement. Staff are entitled to two council representatives, but there is no official union representation. In the past the union had been invited to attend meetings in an observer capacity but during 1998 it received no further invitations to attend and had no response to its request for clarification on this point.

Finally, and according to Durand, probably most importantly,
here was a dispute about the union’s right to hold meetings on campus during the lunch break. Ndlovu argued they were not entitled to do so since, under the gentleman’s agreement that allowed them to take Friday afternoons off, they did not have a lunch break. If they met during that time, therefore, they would be meeting in working hours and that was not acceptable. He felt sufficiently sure of his ground on this point to stop a lunchtime meeting from taking place. Describing this incident as a watershed in the relationship between the principal and Nutesa, Durand says that the union was initially ordered out of the hall, but before members could leave, the doors were locked and chained. One door was later opened for people to leave and the meeting was subsequently held in the open in a courtyard.

Shortly afterwards, in September that year, the secretary of Nutesa at national level took up this and other matters with the vice-chancellor in a letter. “Are you aware of the requirement to ensure that the rights of employees are upheld? Nutesa as the majority union on your campus enjoys a number of organisational rights which you are choosing to ignore,” he wrote.

There is no doubt that the breaking up of the meeting outraged the union. Ndlovu further showed his determination not to allow the technikon’s property to be used for union purposes by cancelling Marais’s e-mail service. Some people at the technikon have suggested that the dispute with the vice-principal could be traced to personal animus on the part of Marais, because her job had been restructured. Ndlovu, it seems, has always felt the dispute stemmed from a personal vendetta by Marais. Durand disregards this argument on the not unreasonable grounds that 366 employees (only 65 of whom are white) could hardly have been persuaded to endure the hardship of the four-week strike that then ensued for so frivolous a reason. However, it is unlikely that there was any love lost between the two. Marais, for instance, told the Daily News (August 16) “In my capacity as head of functions and travel, I began to question aspects of this tycoon-like travel status he was according himself, which were unheard of in the past. He regards anything less than a hired Mercedes for out-of-town travelling as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ vehicle.”

Ndlovu’s personal style seems to have upset a good many people. One supporter of his said “He’s bloody difficult to work with sometimes because he knows what he wants. He is a disciplinarian. His style is very much Zulu male autocratic, but I’ve always found him to be fair. He is open to ideas but he doesn’t tolerate fools. He is very strict on what ideas he tolerates. In the end he is about academic rigour and academic discipline.”
Sometimes that rigour seems to have verged on pedantry. One complaint from staff concerns his habit of correcting their English. “I know that he has a good command of English, but it is very intimidating,” said one. In one response to Nutesa he wrote: “I would like to express my disquiet at the level of your communication, ie the poor expression of your ideas and the confused state of your diction.”

On March 10 this year Nutesa lawyers presented 13 disputes against the management of Mangosuthu Technikon at a council meeting. Nine disputes — concerned mainly with allegations of irregularities in staff appointments and that union members had been prevented from exercising their rights — were referred to a Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) hearing on the recommendation of the principal. A further dispute involved allegations that the principal had been guilty of intimidation for telling the cleaning and maintenance staff to resign from Nutesa because it was a white trade union, but this was withdrawn by Nutesa on the grounds that it had been based on false information. However, it is difficult to know how central these disputes really were for the union. As Durand says, it became obvious that the disputes declared by the union were “but a smokescreen to cover the real intent of the strike, namely the removal of Prof A.M. Ndlovu as principal and vice-chancellor”.

From this point on events spun out of control. Ndlovu suspended the secretary of the vice-principal in charge of administration for allegedly releasing confidential information to Nutesa. The union disagreed that the information was in fact confidential and decided to hold an illegal strike until the secretary was reinstated. The technikon was granted a court order requiring the staff to return to work and their action came to an abrupt end. (The secretary was found guilty of negligence at a disciplinary hearing on July 28).

Any hope that the CCMA hearing on April 13 would dampen passions was quickly extinguished. Its report did not arbitrate on the disputes and merely pointed out that in the circumstances Nutesa had the option of industrial action and management the right of a lock out. On June 22 Nutesa balloted its members on strike action. Sixty-six per cent (248 people) voted, with 222 in favour and 26 against. In a move calculated to get maximum public attention the union waited until the students returned from the mid-year break on July 19, when about 220 staff members went on strike. Management immediately invoked a lock out with a view to removing the strikers from the campus. The police were called in but they refused to act, for the demonstrators though sometimes noisy, were not causing any damage or breaking the law. Accordingly a security firm, Combat Force, was then brought on to the campus — at a cost of almost half a million Rand.

As the strike neared the end of its third week council members decided at a special meeting on August 6 to use an independent mediator to resolve the dispute, but also gave Ndlovu permission to approach the Labour Court for an interdict to declare the strike illegal. The students, whose interests seem to have counted for little with the staff or council, grew restive: not only were many of their lecturers on strike but their residences were not being cleaned. On July 30, they demanded in a memorandum to the principal that their lecturers return to classes by August 2 and their residences be cleaned. Not surprisingly, this had no effect and the following day some students started toyi-toying on campus in protest at this neglect of their interests. The technikon management ordered them to return to lectures or face the closure of the institution. The students responded by dumping the contents of rubbish bins at the entrance to the technikon and Combat Force, which according to Durand has “built up a reputation for strong-armed tactics”, reacted by spraying staff and students with ammonia gas from canisters.

The strikers were further enraged when police arrested a staff member who had been suspended in June on charges of producing false qualifications documents. Police took her into custody at her home at about 10.30pm on the August 6 1999, the Friday of a long weekend, when court officials are often reluctant to hold bail hearings, and jailed her without laying criminal charges. The following day, on Ndlovu’s instruction, she was charged with fraud and theft of R3,000 from the technikon. Three days later a petition signed by 253 staff members stating that they had lost confidence in the principal was faxed to the chairperson of the council.

At this point the students decided to join the striking staff and marched out of the technikon gates, blocked traffic, overturned dustbins at the entrance and set litter alight. According to Durand: “An ongoing barrage of taunts between Combat Force and the students finally led to the students throwing cans and bottles from across the highway towards the campus gate. Suddenly the gates were pulled back and the Combat Force guards stepped out and opened fire on the staff and students. Durand concludes his account of that day: “In my opinion the unfortunate and traumatic day of August 12, 1999 was the final nail in the coffin of any hope that reconciliation could take place at Mangosuthu Technikon for the foreseeable future.”

Durand recommended that council should terminate Ndlovu’s services and re-examine any cases of staff suspensions that were still in effect. If the council did not dismiss Ndlovu by the end of the year, he said, the minister should use his powers to appoint an administrator to take over management of the technikon.
At a seven-hour meeting on October 4, the technikon’s council decided that, since nothing in the report suggested the principal was guilty of any misconduct, they did not have grounds on which to fire him. Instead they resolved to send him on leave until the end of the year instead. But staff and students wanted Ndlovu dismissed and refused to accept council’s decision. They erected barricades at the entrance gates and denied access to management. The technikon’s public relations officer, Annamia Main, was assaulted in her office by a mob of between 30 and 50 staff and students. “They dragged me out and assaulted me. I had to be escorted off the campus. I don’t feel safe there anymore,” she says.

Finally, Ndlovu was invited to a council meeting on October 19 to convince them that his relationship with the staff had not broken down irretrievably. He failed to turn up and several people, regarded by many as Ndlovu’s supporters, boycotted the meeting. The council announced that it would seek advice from senior counsel to terminate his services.

The staff, triumphant at their victory over the principal, have volunteered to lecture on Saturdays without being paid overtime. “On Fridays they are working after hours and during the 10-day holiday they offered their services,” said a student representative council member, Lourence Chauke. Nutesa is already in consultation with the technikon’s acting principal to ensure that the disputes originally raised by the union are now addressed. The staff have voted Nutesa president Marais on to the council and removed two representatives for not being sufficiently accountable. In effect the staff and students are now in the driving seat and any new principal may well have difficulty in exercising much authority.

Ndlovu felt unable to provide any comment to Focus because of potential future legal action, though he has pointed out that he has not been accused of any serious impropriety and has described Durand’s report as “very malicious and slanderous”. Nonetheless it seems certain that Ndlovu’s reign is over. There is indeed a strange symmetry in the way in which Ndlovu’s professional Waterloo has mirrored his political defeat five years ago. Having returned to the ranks of his profession, Ndlovu was effectively rewarded by the ANC with the consolation prize first of service on a presidential commission and then with the top job at the technikon. Here, too, although not a political conflict, he has united his opponents against him and has been ousted by union action.