Blade Nzimande's attack on Puk: Theuns Eloff's reply

Former VC says minister is trying to break the back of an institution that refuses to slip into the ANC straitjacket of biased transformation


Honourable Minister Nzimande, I was surprised to read of your attacks on the NWU, the NWU Council, the management of the Potchefstroom Campus, and the previous vice-chancellor (see here).

To my knowledge this is the first time in your term as minister that you have launched such an attack on one institution and one person - and this despite the fact that there were (and are) other universities and vice-chancellors who neglect their managerial duties, where serious financial mismanagement takes place, and where there is a complete lack of oversight.

Not even the universities you placed under administration and where unrest continues unabated have been subjected to such attacks.

This is why I feel called upon to respond to these attacks - not to defend myself, but to defend the NWU, its council and its management.

But first, an observation on the remarkable "coincidences" of last week. During a week surrounding a public holiday, the parliamentary portfolio committee visited the NWU on Tuesday; you summoned the executive committee of Council for a dressing-down on Thursday - the same day on which you held a media conference about a report you had received months before; and - to round it off - the new vice-chancellor was inaugurated on Friday. Almost too good to be true or coincidental, don't you think? The revolutionary expression would be, "setting the scene" I suppose?

Media quotations clearly indicate that your attacks are based on the so-called Wessels Report. However, you did not mention to the media your own undertaking - upon request from the Council - to keep the report confidential because of possible slanderous statements by the report for which the University could be held liable, if published.

You also failed to mention to the media that the report was rejected by the council due to serious shortcomings regarding methodology and the principle of "hearing the other side".

You know that the report made findings based upon complaints that were treated as facts without the people in question ever having been given the opportunity of giving their side of the story.

And yet in public, without batting an eyelid, you declare that the Council attempted to prevent the report from being published because it revealed "deep moral corruption" at the University. What basis do you have for making this appalling accusation? Are you basing it on a report the serious shortcomings of which you were aware? How irresponsible could this be?

But it doesn't stop here. Despite findings by this deficient report that there is no culture of Nazism or fascism on the Potch Campus, you barrel ahead, accusing management of allowing such a culture to prevail under "tacit approval". You do not mention that you were shown the video clip upon which Beeld founded its entire exposé, and that you yourself saw that what was labelled a Nazi salute had been nothing but a song sung by first-years to a residence leader.

I want to put on record that not everything that happens (and happened) at the NWU could serve as a model for the hereafter. There are still many shortcomings, and mistakes are made. The question should rather be: Were and are the council and management determined to work hard at improving matters? My answer was and is, "yes".

You consider it "refreshing" that the Wessels Report blames the management model of the NWU for everything. Yet every year for the past five years you have received a comprehensive annual report from the NWU. These annual reports clearly indicated the University's achievements in teaching-learning and research, along with the positive role the management model played in reaching these milestones.

You never criticised these. You granted permission for the many elements of the NWU management model to be incorporated into the new statute of the Walter Sisulu University to assist in managing their own multicampus environment.

You conveniently forget that the current vice-chancellor, Prof Dan Kgwadi, applied the same management model very effectively (and without objection) over a period of nine years to transform the unmanageable and academically-failing Mafikeng Campus to a full and equal NWU campus. Today the Mafikeng Campus produces research that is on par with some of the best universities in the country. You have access to this information, don't you?

You also forget that the NWU won the PricewaterhouseCoopers prize for best governed university in the country for five years in a row.

In reference to Potchefstroom and Afrikaans you make the disturbing and naive (or malicious) statement that it is the management model is forcing Afrikaans upon Potchefstroom. No, sir, it is section 29(2) of our Constitution that was laboriously negotiated - and which you should be a champion of - that ensures a place for Afrikaans on the Potchefstroom Campus.

And then you take an enormous mental leap in concluding that this state of affairs makes Potchefstroom an "enclave of apartheid".

If you had carefully studied the deficient Wessels Report along with the reports that Beeld generated around this issue, you would have made the astonishing discovery that not a single instance of racism was found. Not even a team of journalists from Beeld could manage, after rigorous investigation, to find any instances of racism in Potchefstroom. An enclave of apartheid? That is not even remotely true.

According to media reports, the response you received from university management regarding the so-called salute led you to conclude that I had lied to you. At least two of the reports that you refer to were just as inadequate as the Wessels Report; the other report (despite the obvious quality of the NWU) could find nothing but fault - on the basis of the supposed lack of "transformation".

Like any self-respecting executive head of an organisation, I refuse to decry the institution I am associated with on the grounds of inadequate and clearly biased reports just to score political points. I therefore stand by my original answer to you. You can try to dismiss me as a liar - former president PW Botha did the same in 1987 after the Dakar Safari. That did not hold any water either.

I am not even going to respond to your uninformed assertion of my unwillingness to establish and promote a culture of human rights at the NWU. My history and all that was achieved at the NWU speak louder than any words (see Beeld profile here). The reason for your attacks on the NWU is clear. You are irritated by the existence of a university that does not slip into the ANC strait-jacket of biased transformation, but prefers to think for itself and to do what is best for the country and all its people.

You see a new vice-chancellor who seems to want to make drastic changes and you think, "Let's support him."

But then you do this by defaming the university he now leads, where he has already spent nine years working, as well as former and present colleagues. This does not show integrity.

You are not well-known for your tolerant attitude towards differences in opinion. Many other universities can attest to this. But to attack and denounce a university like the NWU - the second largest in the country according to student head count and one of the top six in terms of research and teaching output - in the hopes that the new vice-chancellor will dance to your tune, is neither honourable nor realistic. The Afrikaans proverb says "Kierangs braai" (your chickens will come home to roost).

My sincerest best wishes for your enormous task of supporting, empowering, and better financing all the universities in the country.

For your sake and the sake of democracy I hope that the university sector will remain autonomous and critical.

Kind regards

Theuns Eloff

Theuns Eloff is the former Vice-Chancellor of the North-West University.

This article first appeared, in Afrikaans, in Beeld newspaper.

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