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WBS pushes for more autonomy

WITS Business School (WBS) is planning a fund-raising and development drive it hopes will make it more financially independent.

The school wants to at least double its annual R50 million turnover from executive education by the

end of 2007, and is planning a R200 million fund-raising drive from alumni. There are also plans to create a residential student complex.

Mukal Gupta, the Indian academic who quit this month after barely five months as WBS director, says any business school wanting to be considered a genuinely international institution must offer accommodation.

According to his acting successor, Mthuli Ncube, hotel groups have been asked to assess the conversion and management of the adjacent Ernest Oppenheimer building and nearby apartments. He hopes the development, which could be complete in 2007, will attract more foreign students, particularly from Europe and the US.

If it goes ahead, and WBS succeeds in raising the extra funds, the school will have some of the independence it has long craved. WBS is a subdivision of the University of the Witwatersrand, as part of the faculty of commerce, law and management. Unlike most of the university, however, it is profitable.

Gupta, like a number of his predecessors, argued during his brief tenure for more WBS autonomy. Though he says his relations with Wits were generally cordial, others say he became frustrated by university interference.

Colleagues say the fact that his family was in India, waiting for permission to join him in South Africa, increased Gupta’s sense of isolation. His official reason for resigning was that he could not obtain study permits for his two daughters.

But friends suggest that was merely the final straw. Had he really wanted to stay, they say, it’s hard to believe that a combination of the Indian High Commission, Wits University and his immediate boss, commerce dean Patrick FitzGerald — who has strong personal links to top levels of government — could not have made it happen.

Ncube, his successor, is a 42-year-old Zimbabwean who, depending on who you ask, is either a successful businessman and academic, or a fugitive from justice.

Ncube used to head Zimbabwe’s Barbican Bank before it was nationalised and closed by the government in 2004. It was one of about 10 banks forced to close about that time.

Ncube, like several other bankers — fled the country to avoid prosecution on charges of personal enrichment and illegally exporting foreign currency. According to one report last week, Ncube is among those whom President Robert Mugabe has said “will be found and brought to justice”.

Many believe the charges are trumped up, but that’s quite a turnaround for someone who became a director of the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange when he was only 23 and was later invited to become governor of the country’s Reserve Bank.

Though he turned down that “honour”, he was chairman of the government’s black empowerment body, the National Investment Trust and the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair.

Ncube confirms Barbican Bank was closed by government in what he says was a purely political decision which a Zimbabwe court has subsequently declared illegal.

Though analysts say he should probably stay away for now, he insists he is not a fugitive. He still has a plastics company and financial services interests in the country and says he has no fears about returning. That confidence may soon be put to the test. Ncube is also the one-third owner of a Zimbabwean gold-mining consortium currently challenging SA business magnate Mzi Khumalo in the High Court over an empowerment agreement and access to company information.

Before joining WBS in 2005 as finance professor, Ncube had lectured for four years at the London School of Economics. He has a PhD in finance from Cambridge University.

Besides his time heading Barbican in Zimbabwe, he worked for Investec Asset Management in Cape Town, and founded the Selwyn group of financial services companies.

He says his job as acting director has no time limit. “It’s an indefinite appointment. Eventually they will advertise for a full-time director and I will decide then if I want to apply.

“I want to feel the job first. I am an entrepreneur and have worked in both the public and private sectors. I don’t know if this job uses all my skills.”

Ncube adds: “It is good that I have so much experience in business. All professors should have. If not, what can you teach your students?” — Staff Writer.

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