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Sisulu university heads for chopping block

9/5/2013, 11:25 a.m. | Updated on 9/5/2013, 11:25 a.m.
Sisulu graduates

Sep. 3 (GIN) – The South African university named for anti-apartheid fighter and African National Congress member Walter Sisulu has hit rough waters and appears headed for closure within months.

Newspaper accounts blame the fall of the institution on administrators who overpaid themselves, left the school bankrupt, mired in conflict and corruption.

The Eastern Cape university was closed indefinitely last week, highlighting neglect in a province that was once an African National Congress stronghold and whose education institutions, such as Fort Hare University, produced some of Africa’s most prominent leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Robert Mugabe.

At a recent press conference in Pretoria, the head of department of higher education, Gwebinkundla Qonde cited the unusually high percentage of school income spent on salaries – about 75% - when the national payroll norm is between 55 and 62%.

"This is a consequence of deliberate misappropriation of funds by members of management” who illegally used earmarked grants provided for infrastructure improvements to pay salaries, Qonde said.

Labor troubles at the university have been ongoing. After nine months of failed talks, a strike was called and is now in its eighth week.

Walter Sisulu University is a product of a 2005 merger of the Eastern Cape Technikon, Border Technikon and the University of the Transkei. It is spread over a large area, including Mthatha, East London, Butterworth and Queenstown and registered over 9,000 students at one time.

Meanwhile, the school’s 27,000 students were given until today to vacate its four campuses.

The downfall of the troubled school may have decades-old roots. According to Dr. Somadoda Fikeni, the former chair of the university council, Sibusiso Bengu, the first post-apartheid education minister, proposed historical redress funding for historically disadvantaged institutions. But he was defeated by a strong lobby against his efforts.

Writing in the Mail&Guardian newspaper, Fikeni observed: "(The) historical, systemic and structural challenges of a merger that combined three severely disadvantaged institutions, each with its own history of instability… was compounded by the poor recovery of student debt, the general culture of poor payment of fees and the reality of servicing one of the poorest regions in the country, as reflected in its demographic features."