UKZN academic accuses mayor of meddling

There is an error here – Fazel Khan was employed in the sociology department and not at the Centre for Civil Society.

The Mercury

UKZN academic accuses mayor of meddling
December 16, 2005

By Zukile Majova & Carvin Goldstone

An academic at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society, who has been at the forefront of protest against the perceived slow pace of service provision by the eThekwini Municipality, claims his academic freedom is being undermined.

The claim is vigorously denied by the UKZN Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Prof William Makgoba. The academic says he believes eThekwini Mayor Obed Mlaba is using his friendship with Makgoba to tinker with academic freedom.

At the centre of the uproar is a claim that Mlaba told Makgoba he was very angry about the activities of some of the academics on Makgoba’s payroll.

Fazel Khan, a sociologist from UKZN who is documenting the plight of shack dwellers living in informal settlements in Kennedy Road and Sydenham in Durban, said he was considering dropping his research because of political interference in his work. Khan’s troubles reportedly started on December 7 after he attended the Vice-Chancellor’s Consultation Forum. He said he had spoken to Makgoba at the end of the forum.

“I was talking about union matters when Makgoba told me the mayor was very angry with me,” he said.

“He said Mlaba phoned him to voice his anger with my involvement with the informal settlement disputes.

“I told him that I was elected by the people to represent them, help them write press releases, teach them how to take minutes of their meetings, etc.”

Khan, who is doing a PhD in sociology, told Makgoba that his involvement was in line with his academic work because he was producing a research paper on the matter, and it was part of his community outreach, a requirement expected of all academics. But he said Makgoba had repeated: “Mlaba is very angry with you.”

Makgoba had added that the mayor was preparing a report regarding Khan’s actions of instigating the informal settlers, and it would be presented to the university’s council.

“For the third time he told me that Mlaba is very angry with me,” said Khan.

“I then asked him (Makgoba) what his opinion was on this matter, and he said he did not have an opinion at the time, but would wait for the presentation to be made to council.

“I felt that instead of encouraging independence for researchers, he was exposing them to intimidation.”

The conversation was overheard by Prof Kathan Pillay and an executive member of the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union who attended the forum. Pillay said: “I can say that the conversation was informal, but I will not delve into its content because it was between Prof Makgoba and Khan.”

Khan has reported the matter to the Freedom of Expression Institute and the Human Rights Foundation. However, Makgoba said the mayor had never phoned him. He said he had been told by a member of the university staff who had visited the informal settlement at the same time as Mlaba that the mayor had been angry at some academics in the university. He denied intimidating Khan, saying their conversation had been informal and not characterised by “finger-pointing intimidation”.

“I spoke to him off the cuff. There are different kinds of conversations and this one was informal,” said Makgoba.

“I actually feel betrayed that an academic at the university can do this to me.”

He added: “I was just warning him that Mlaba has found out that he was stirring trouble at the settlement while they knew well that the council and the university are co-operating to ensure that they get proper houses.”

The vice-chancellor said he had been informed that the mayor had remarked that he was very disappointed and that he would call him and prepare a report to the UKZN council.

“I told him that when I had facts I would call him to my office,” said Makgoba.

“But the mayor has not called me and, at the moment, everything hinges on hearsay.

“We hear that they (Khan and Centre for Civil Society academic Richard Pitthouse) are not doing research, but they have set themselves as councillors in the area.

“The first thing I will do in the new year will be to call the mayor so we can deal with this matter.”

Mlaba said it was “nonsense” that he was interfering with academic independence.

“Even Makgoba will not concur with claims that I phoned him because I did no such (thing),” said Mlaba.

“These are just people who are determined to pull down our movement ahead of the elections.”

He denied claims that his office was compiling a report that would be forwarded to Makgoba.

“There is no report. I don’t care what they (academics) say. Maybe they know that they are interfering with the council’s plans,” said Mlaba.

Prof Shadrack Gutto, a Director of the Centre for African Renaissance Studies, said academic freedom was protected under section 16 of the constitution, and it should be respected.