A sacking and a promotion

Professor Fanie Olivier was eagerly awaiting the outcome of arbitration in his case against the University of Venda.

AS FOCUS WENT to press, Professor Fanie Olivier was eagerly awaiting the outcome of arbitration in his case against the University of Venda. Readers of Focus 11 ("Unrest on Campus", report on Univen, July 1998) will recall that vice-chancellor Gessler Nkondo has given the university's disciplinary committee almost un- limited powers of punishment and has allowed himself to increase or decrease any sanction. When Olivier complained to colleagues, in an internal letter, that the changes to the disciplinary code had been made without proper consultation, and that other crucial decisions were being taken in the same way, Nkondo summoned him to a disciplinary hearing and then dismissed him with immediate effect - even though Olivier had appealed to the university Council. Olivier was without income for 15 months before Council - chaired by Barney Pityana - confirmed Nkondo's decision on April 1, 2001.

Olivier took his case to the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration asking for reinstatement and back pay and insisted that a senior commissioner from outside the province should hear it. Proceedings finished on January 23. Should he win, Focus will be interested to see how the university reacts. Back in March 2000 Olivier obtained a High Court order ruling that his dismissal by Nkondo was unlawful and that he should be reinstated with back pay until Council had heard his appeal. The university never complied.

Focus 11 also reported the story of the head of nursing science at the University of Venda who was summoned before a disciplinary committee on a trivial charge and demoted from professor to senior lecturer with a corresponding pay cut. There was speculation among his colleagues at the time that one reason why he had incurred the university's displeasure might be that he had unwittingly failed to shortlist the vice chancellor's wife, Olga Makhubela-Nkondo, for a job. Her career prospered anyway. She became an associate professor in the department of advanced nursing science at Unisa, and on November 13 last year was appointed Executive Director: Dean of Students, for three years - under the new vice chancellor, Barney Pityana. This promotion was perhaps unexpected given the many complaints there have been about her work performance.

According to a lengthy report in Beeld by Alet Rademeyer (December 13, 2001), the newspaper is in possession of a number of documented complaints. These include Professor Nkondo's alleged neglect of rules and procedures, very poor relationships with colleagues, and habit of crying racism if she is not happy with something. It is also generally known in the university, reports Rademeyer, that many of her duties, for example, the setting up of study guides, had to be done by her juniors.

The university eventually appointed management consultants to advise on the persistent problems in the department. They found that the university's failure to take prompt action over six years had resulted in relationships of trust being damaged, while the heavy workload on staff had caused emotional and physical health problems. The consultants, writes Rademeyer, recommended that:

  • management should no longer protect Professor Nkondo and inform her that an immediate improvement in her work performance and interpersonal relationships was required;
  • she should perhaps seek professional help to assist her with the changes that were needed in her department;
  • she should look to positive aspects of her colleagues instead of mistrusting them to the extent that she did;
  • the university should reconsider her qualifications for the post and investigate the possibility of transferring her to a position more suited to her qualifications.

Rademeyer quotes "a well-informed source" who said that while some of the recommendations had been carried out and management had tried to act as far as possible, "it appears however that management's hands were tied as a result of interference from members of Council."

When Focus asked Professor Nkondo for her comments, she responded in a lengthy signed statement that "the allegations were never proven". Moreover, she regards co-workers as colleagues not juniors, and she has many duties which could not be done on her behalf. Her academic qualifications, she writes, are "unique and relevant. I have benefited tremendously from interdisciplinary modular systems. Such experience and knowledge cannot be overemphasised in our country."

She is a Harvard alumnus, she writes, and was the first black nurse to be tenured at Unisa. She serves on the advisory committee of the National Research Foundation and has been deputy chairperson of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa in Gauteng for the past four years. She lists many examples of her work, including setting up the first interdisciplinary programme in the nursing department; serving on the interim management board of Unisa; representing successfully other academics during grievance procedures; serving in task teams of the National Commission on Higher Education; undertaking research; co-ordinating international conferences, and successfully supervising postgraduate students.

Turning to the subject of racism in nursing, Professor Nkondo quotes Dr M. Kingma, a consultant to the International Council for Nurses, who found cases in which "black nurses in Britain were delayed in career mobility compared to their white colleagues".

She concludes: "Racist tactics cannot be used to suppress contribution by blacks. The tendency is to discredit blacks who succeed to dispel the myth, stereotype and misinformation that characterise blacks as poor administrators and/or academics. It is common knowledge that certain writers create an impression that blacks who make it, only get promoted because the tide has turned. However, objective writers and scholars do give credit where it is due . . . thank God, overt discrimination is outlawed in South Africa. We need to count how many writers have the courage to do this. Anyway subtle discriminatory practices can be addressed. There are remedies for any form of misrepresentation."