SMU Vice Chancellor Inquiry

Higher Education, Science and Technology

18 August 2021
Chairperson: Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC) (Acting)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee concluded its inquiry with witness testimony from Ince (Pty) Ltd, the company responsible for the electronic voting on the SMU Vice Chancellor appointment. The company presented its profile, how it used its electronic voting platform at Sefako Makgotho University (SMU) to conduct the voting that led to the appointment of Prof Mbati as SMU Vice Chancellor.

Through the Institute of Election Management Services in Africa (IEMSA), Ince was invited to submit a quotation to conduct the electronic voting for the SMU Vice Chancellor appointment. IEMSA and Ince were questioned about the Ince appointment process for SMU elections; terms of reference; when the electronic voting system was utilised and what level; if the platform was free from being tampered with; if the results can be audited; if allegations about poor security, lack of privacy and confidentiality about the electronic voting platform by some SMU Council members were true; if Ince could control who accessed the platform to vote; and if the results were audited.

Meeting report

The Acting Chairperson thanked the witness for his presence and he would need to be sworn in.

Witness –  Mr Terry Tselane and Ms Itumeleng Ndlozi
Mr Terry Tselane, Executive Chairperson of Institute of Election Management Services in Africa (IEMSA), invited Ms Itumeleng Ndlozi, Executive Head: Public Sector Division at Ince (Pty) Ltd, to join him in his submission to the Committee as well to respond to questions by Members. Ince is the service provider that provides the electronic voting system to IEMSA.

Mr Tselane summarised the Ince electronic voting platform provided when IEMSA was contracted to conduct the SMU Vice Chancellor voting; how the process was carried out; at what level Ince came into the process and the results submitted to the SMU Council from the voting process.

Mr T Letsie (ANC) asked him to take the Committee through how he was appointed to conduct the SMU election process.

Mr Tselane replied that IEMSA has been advocating for electronic voting for a long time. Even at the time when he was part of the IEC as deputy chairperson, he kept pushing for electronic voting. The company was approached to submit its quote to the University for the electronic voting.

Mr Letsie asked if he was aware if it was the only institution approached for the work or if more than one company was approached.

Mr Tselane replied that he was not aware if the SMU approached another company.

Mr Letsie asked how long after submitting the quote was it contacted and appointed.

Mr Tselane replied that it would have been a week or two. It was during hard lockdown (Level 5).

Mr Letsie asked if he recalled the terms of reference for the appointment.

Mr Tselane replied that the terms of reference were basically about whether the company had the capacity to host electronic voting, how much it would cost and if they could submit information on this. The company was provided the information it needed to commence with the work.

Mr Letsie asked if they were given a time frame in the terms of reference.

Mr Tselane replied that there was no time frame only that it was urgent to submit a quotation.

Mr Letsie asked if the urgency was only for the quote submission and not for the voting process.

Mr Tselane confirmed that it was only for the submission of the quote.

Mr Letsie asked if the electronic voting system had been used for any other institution in South Africa besides SMU.

Mr Tselane replied that recently it submitted a quotation to the University of Free State for the SRC election and it has also submitted one to the University of Venda. It was now in the process of finalising the implementation of those.

Ms Itumeleng Ndlozi added that at the time electronic voting had not been used yet for a higher education institution but there are clients that have used it such as the Legal Practice Council when it needed to elect Council Members nationally and regionally. The Legal Practice Fidelity Fund has also used it as well as the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA). The track record is quite good for industry regulatory bodies, which are similar to institutions of higher learning.

Mr Letsie asked at what point and at what level in the recruitment process the electronic voting system was used in SMU.

Mr Tselane replied they were given the names of Council members. They were not working with the Senate or any other structure of the University.

Mr Letsie asked if they only entered the process when voting was done at Council level.

Mr Tselane confirmed that they coordinated the voting of only the Council members.

Mr Letsie asked how many candidates were submitted for the Council to vote on.

Mr Tselane replied that it was only three names.

Mr Letsie said that there is a Higher Education Transformation Network (HETN), which complained that the appointment process of Prof Mbati as SMU Vice Chancellor was flawed. It said that the Council was non-compliant with the Vice Chancellor appointment policy and procedures, which stated that voting must be conducted through a closed-ballot system. HETN alleged that the voting conducted through the Ince system was unsecured and offered no secrecy, privacy and confidentiality for voting by Council members. What is your view on these allegations?

Mr Tselane replied that he would not be able to comment on all the processes Council followed. He could comment only on the electronic voting system, which is fully auditable. Privacy was protected and no Council member could see how others voted. He had already indicated the virtues of the system. They are open to have the system audited and checked if anyone is not pleased with the system or the outcome.

Mr Letsie said that Ms Ndlozi indicated that after each Council member voted, it goes to the cloud which only the company could see and the votes are compiled and the resulted conveyed. How certain is he that the system cannot be tampered with? Is the system tamper-proof at cloud level?

Ms Ndlozi replied that the system could not be tampered with and the company employs BDO Auditors who audit the system around the voting process. Therefore, it is impossible for anyone to tamper with the system without it being detected. The reporting of the system is also automated; there is no human intervention or manual process involved in generating the report.

Mr Letsie said that once it moves from the cloud it goes to supervision level where Mr Tselane would scrutinise. What does scrutinising of the process entail?

Mr Tselane replied that his responsibility was to look at the application of the rules and if these were consistent with the information that was given. After checking that and the ranking, he would then submit information about his satisfaction with the process.

Mr Letsie asked if any objections were raised on how the electronic voting system was administered.

Mr Tselane replied that there was no objection from anybody. No one has contacted the team to comment on the system or made any complaints about the system

Mr Lestie asked if the University Council informed them about the objections lodged about the voting system.

Mr Tselane replied that they were not informed about any complaints or objections. They were hearing about it now for the first time.

Mr Letsie thanked the team for their interactions and for not being evasive and answering the questions directly.

Ms J Mananiso (ANC) asked if all the Council member panellists where South African. If not, how were they able to access the voting platform as the screenshot indicates that the panellists needed to insert an SA ID number to access the system.

Ms Ndlozi replied that her team was provided with the ID numbers of all the panellists and she could not remember at this point if everyone had an ID number but she can check that.

Ms Mananiso asked if it was possible for the team to demonstrate how the process worked.

Ms Ndlozo replied that in the document shared with Parliament, there are screenshots that show how to access the system. They are happy to demonstrate the platform, however, at the end of every voting process the platform is taken down to protect the data stored. At this current moment, even if she tried to log into the platform, she would not be able to because it has been taken down.

The Acting Chairperson referred to the screenshot on how to access the platform. Is the system able to detect ID numbers that were not pre-installed in the system for access?

Ms Ndlozi replied that the team was provided with ID numbers by the Council, which were inserted in the platform prior to the panel members accessing the platform. All the ID numbers that were inserted were recognised by the system. She was uncertain if any foreign ID numbers were detected on the system.

The Acting Chairperson asked the team to demonstrate accessing the platform. We can safely assume that from your end all due processes were followed. There is uncertainty if the panel members did so. You cannot be certain the panel members who accessed the platform did so alone without anyone else present or anyone who could have taken a photo while they were voting on the platform.

She asked how after the voting the report is generated; is it sent through to the team immediately so that it cannot be tampered with?

Mr Tselane replied that it is true the team is not in a position to know or control who panellists sat with when they cast their votes. However, the team is able to tell from where a person was voting. The team would not know if that panellist was sitting next to another person during the voting or if that person took photos or screenshots.

The Acting Chairperson asked in what format the data was sent to Council after voting completion.

Ms Ndlozi replied that it would be a CSV file; it would be in the form of a spreadsheet. It would be the final numbers that the candidate received from the voting. It would not disclose how the panellists ranked the candidates.

The Acting Chairperson asked the team to confirm the data sent to the Council and the data that was published was the same.

Mr Tselane confirmed that.

Mr Letsie asked how transparent the team is to build confidence on how free and fair the elections was.

Mr Tselane replied that when it comes to electronic voting, the only time to ensure transparency is by saying that the system is audited and opening it after the voting has taken place for an external auditor to check it.

Mr Letsie said that it was noted earlier that after the voting has taken place, the platform is taken down; does this mean that the voting results no longer exist?

Ms Ndlozi replied that the system is only kept active for a period of three months after the voting has taken place to allow space for objections or amendments that need to be made. After the three months, the platform is taken down. However, she would check with the technical team to see if it was possible to bring the platform up again and Members would be able to log into the platform and also view any audits that were done on the platform.

Mr Letsie asked if this process was audited before it was shut down.

Ms Ndlozi replied that usually all the platforms are audited by BDO because when the team markets the product, the clients need to know there is integrity associated with the platform. Orders on the outcome of the election will be factored in the quote if the results must be audited or not. At SMU, there was no formal request to have the results audited, which is why they were not audited. We were not aware that the results were being contested and that there were several bodies that were not happy with the results. We thought that the results were accepted without being audited.

The Acting Chairperson thanked Members for engaging with the team. She thanked the delegation for their input and all the information provided to the Committee for the purposes of the Inquiry.

Committee Business
The Acting Chairperson said that the Committee Staff will put together a preliminary report of both Part A and B of the Inquiry. She asked Members to share their sentiments and views on the Inquiry and send their contribution through to the Secretariat as the Report must capture the actual views of the Members, not what the Secretariat believes the views of Members to be.

The Committee minutes of 1 and 2 June 2021 were considered and adopted.

The meeting was adjourned.

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