EXCLUSIVE: Gordhan ‘bullying Unisa to benefit relative’

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Ayanda Mdluli

JOHANNESBURG- Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan is being accused of using his political weight to bully the University of South Africa into allowing special favours for a relative who is an associate professor there.

The accusation is that the relative is using her connection to Gordhan to put pressure on the university to break institutional policies by allowing her to work from home in the US with minimal contact with students while taking home a salary of more than one million rand a year.

Venitha Pillay is said to be related to Gordhan as is Dhaya Pillay, who is a South African judge of the Labour Court. Some academics at the institution who spoke to Africa News 24-7 on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal revealed that Gordhan and Judge Pillay have been putting pressure to stifle legal proceedings at the CCMA in order to sweep the matter under the carpet so that she can keep her job at the institution.

One of the sources alleges that four months into her employment at the university three years ago, Pillay applied to work from home in Washington DC. According to University officials, Unisa only allowed its employees to work from home after three years of service. The policy also stated that one would have to be based in Gauteng to qualify and did not make provisions for individuals based in countries outside of South Africa.

Her application to work in the US was declined and she appealed to higher structures where she was also declined. This is when the vice-chancellor was allegedly put under pressure by Gordhan, where a concession was granted based on dubious claims about her “struggle credentials” and that she was the mother to a 20-year-old adult daughter.

“During this process, the minister contacted various people and I know this as a matter of fact. The minister even said that she was in the struggle and has struggle credentials which is why we should continue employing her. The man of Indian descent from the Department of Higher Education and Training told one of our academics that he was sent by Gordhan and asked: ‘Why don’t you allow her to work in the US because she is so good,” said the source.

Thereafter various academics within the institution raised their concerns and the University subsequently withdrew its work from home policy which meant that Pillay would have to relocate back to South Africa to honour her employment contract. The university then paid her a R90 000 relocation fee. According to some academics, Pillay took the money and never moved to South Africa, opting to take the institution to the labour court, where one of her alleged relatives, Dhaya Pillay is a judge.

Responding to a media query this week, Unisa confirmed that the institution is going to the Labour Court on December 3, 2018.

Speaking on behalf of the University, Martin Ramotshela said: “We confirm that Professor Venitha Pillay is employed by the university. We also confirm that there is currently a dispute between Professor Pillay and the university which is before the court; and set for trial from 03 December 2018. Since this matter is sub judice, the university prefers not to comment on or discuss its merits outside of the court processes, until the matter is finalised.”

‘Captured legal department’

Other academics have made further damaging allegations against the institution’s legal services department where it accused the advocates handling the case on behalf of the institution of being captured by Gordhan’s political influence. The legal team and the names of the advocates representing the institutions are known to Africa News 24-7. According to information supplied to Africa News 24-7, the firm consists of mostly Afrikaners who are accused of trying to sweep the matter under the carpet at the instructions of the Minister and continued pressure from officials of Indian Decent employed by the Department of Higher Education and Training.

“The Advocates are captured; Judge Dhaya Pillay accompanied one of our professors to the CCMA and is interfering with the ends of justice. Venitha Pillay took 90 000 to relocate from America to South Africa. There has been no follow up and no investigation. She was paid a relocation fee but never came back. There have been other lesser employers who were investigated and dismissed because they did not have the same influential resources,” said the source.

An investigation by Africa News 24-7 can confirm that Pillay has been living in the United States for two years and only spent four months in South Africa during her tenure and that the institution’s legal services Department is under pressure from Gordhan after multiple executives and senior academics confirmed that this is the case.

“The policy does not allow people to work in the United States. We have a staff complement of 280 or so in the college of education. Some of the senior staff members in other provinces have also applied to work from home and if she is given conditions to work from the United States it will set a dangerous precedent and have a negative impact and it will put a strain on the university because We won’t have senior staff tending to the everyday needs of students, especially in provinces where there are many poor students who don’t have resources to reach lecturers who are working from home.

‘Students speak out’

An SRC member at Unisa who leaked the story and who spoke to Africa News 24-7 on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media corroborated the claims made by some of the institution’s academics. “I can tell you now that the SRC is not happy with the work from home policy. Staff should be available for the students because Students need contact with lecturers,” said the SRC member.

If you are poor and sitting in Lusikiski in the Eastern Cape with no data for the internet, it will be difficult for those learners.

Explaining the policy, one academic said Unisa has the policy to work from home because there is a huge crisis with office space and people, employees and students alike do not have computers and devices.

“It doesn’t make sense because of the high cost of data in South Africa. Contact with lecturers is at the forefront of how Unisa services its student community. The expectation is that once you work from home you need to be available to students. America, Washington DC has a very different time zone which raises speculation that Pillay might still be employed by the World Bank. She expects to be given preferential treatment because she is related to Pravin Gordhan. She has a history of dragging institutions to court. An individual who works for the University of Pretoria once told me that she was allowed to Work for the World Bank while employed by the University of Pretoria,” said the academic.

Africa News 24-7 could not verify, at the time of publication if Pillay was still employed by the World Bank in Washington DC, however, Information obtained by the publication also depicts how the vice-chancellor, Mandla Makhanya was under severe pressure by Gordhan.

According to sources, Makhanya made the concessions as he was terrified of the powerful Gordhan and feared that the minister would “squash him like a little bug” if he did not keep Venitha Pillay employed at the institution.

Gordhan has since vehemently denied the allegations levelled against him. Adrian Lackay, Gordhan’s spokesperson said: “Mr Pravin Gordhan does not have a niece or any other family member who is employed by UNISA.”

Pressure mounts on Gordhan to go

On Monday, a certain group within the ANC that refers to themselves as RET Champions staged a picket at the liberation movement’s Luthuli House headquarters in Johannesburg calling for the minister to get the axe.

Its leader, Nkosenathi Shezi claims that Gordan has become the law unto himself.

“He founded an illegal and rogue unit at the South African Revenue Service. He has continued to employ his children, friends and associates in government entities at expense of the people who voted ANC to power. He is directing the Board Chairman and the Board at Transnet to suspend Gama as CEO, despite impressive results and unproven allegations. He wants to replace him with lackeys who will capture Transnet on his behalf. He undermines our government and the ANC through conservative white policies that are driven through the National Treasury,” said.

Africa News 24-7 tried to contact Venitha Pillay but was not successful.