ONE minute Theuns Pelser was a respected member of staff at the University of the North-West, director of the graduate school of business and government leadership and a thesis supervisor in much demand. Next moment an email arrived in his in-box and changed his life completely.
It had been sent by a colleague in his department – someone with whom he thought he had a good relationship, O C Miruka – to the dean of the commerce faculty, the university rector and more than 80 other people.
The email, which arrived on 23 March 2014, was written in a peculiar style, often sarcastic in tone, and its main function was to raise the spectre of Pelser as a plagiariser. Its references to Pelser were couched in phrases like this: “Take the case of my dear brother leader, Professor Theuns G Pelser” or “the formidable director” or “the good director”.
The way in which Pelser was supposed to have plagiarised was far from clear from the email, but that he was, in the view of Miruka, a plagiarist was abundantly evident, despite his use of the phrase “apparent plagiarism” at one point. There were also suggestions in the email that Pelser had used inappropriate language, verging on hate-speech.
Miruka’s view of what he had written in the email, according to his evidence in a later court case, was that his statement was “true and of interest” to those to whom it had been forwarded. He also justified his email on the grounds that he had sent it out “only after confirming that indeed (Pelser) had presented a publication as though it was his own work and failed to credit the author of certain parts of the publication”.
Miruka said he had sent a copy of his email to Pelser himself as he (Miruka) “felt the contents were true” and “needed to be resolved” between Pelser, Miruka and the other members of staff.
Whatever Miruka’s real intentions, the email began a period of great anguish for Pelser. While Pelser’s life imploded under the strain, Miruka continued sending out emails that reiterated the allegations – and these continued even after the university investigated Miruka’s charges and found them baseless.
Pelser found his colleagues at the university unwilling to listen to his side of the story; he felt isolated and victimised. It became so bad that he needed psychological help. His family was affected and eventually he had to quit the University of the North-West and relocate to another job in another province.
He felt his colleagues lost respect for him and that the university did nothing to protect him. Later, even though he was cleared by the university, he received no apology. And because the inquiry was still under way during the period of the year when staff were considered for promotion, he lost out.
Ultimately he decided to go to court and clear his name via a claim for defamation. That case was argued in the high court, Mahikeng, during August this year, and judgment has now been delivered by Judge Malefsane Kgoele.
Pelser’s case was that if you accuse someone of plagiarism you are saying that person has stolen someone else’s work. The people who received the email would have understood that Miruka meant Pelser was “dishonest and not of good moral fibre”, that he had committed plagiarism and that he acted fraudulently. Moreover Miruka’s claims about the language used by Pelser would have been understood by readers to mean that he “commits verbal abuse” and acts of racism and discrimination, as well as conducting himself in an unethical way.
Of the actions that appeared to form the basis of Miruka’s allegations, Pelser gave this explanation: Universities expect their staff to do research and publish their findings. At some stage during his tenure, he was asked by a colleague to help him, and then co-publish some of (the colleague’s) work. Pelser agreed, as he thought the university would score points from the publication of the work. They completed the work and it was accepted for publication. His behaviour in this matter was investigated by the university after Miruka’s claims went public and he was cleared.
Summarising Miruka’s defence the judge said Miruka claimed Pelser was confused and that the email was no more than a discussion about plagiarism among colleagues. He said he did not mean to impute the negative attributes claimed by Pelser.
On the other hand, Miruka also claimed that “the statement was obviously the truth”. He had all the necessary information to back up the claims, he said. His action was not “wrongful” and the email should be seen as “deliberative”. According to Miruka, the reasonable reader would not see the things he said about Pelser as defamatory. His email was “fair comment”, based on fact, and his way of operating had been “entirely peaceful”.
The judge said since Miruka admitted he had sent the email to all the people listed by Pelser, all she needed to do was decide whether the statement was in fact defamatory and if so, what damages Miruka should have to pay.
She rejected Miruka’s claim that his statement was not defamatory of Pelser, saying that in the academic world plagiarism was a very serious allegation which would lower the esteem in which someone was held.
Next, she had to consider whether the defamation was wrongful and whether the allegations were true. To her surprise, said the judge, despite Miruka’s claim to have proof of the truthfulness of his claims, these proofs were neither attached to his court papers nor given to the court during the hearing.
It was also clear from the university’s legal advisor, who investigated the allegations and in the process examined all the documentation put up by Miruka, that she could find no documentation to support the allegations. As a result Miruka failed to establish any lawful justification for his defamatory claims.
It was obvious that the claims were meant to be seen, at the least, by the whole faculty, though Miruka never explained why he sent such “sensitive allegations” to so many people. The judge was also unimpressed that Miruka had continued to make similar allegations even after Pelser had been cleared by a university inquiry. She said it was clear that Miruka was vindictive, not acting in good faith, and that he had acted from “ulterior motives” when he published the statement.
He even continued his allegations after Pelser issued summons against him, preparatory to the court case. She quoted remarks in yet another email by Miruka, this time sent to Pelser’s attorney a week before the court hearing. “I would worry more about Mr Pelser,” Miruka wrote “and salivate in anticipation of a half a million rand bounty (my) dear attorney ….”
The judge concluded that, considering Miruka’s conduct, including his “reckless” publications, he should have to pay R100 000 to Pelser, as well as his legal costs.
The terms of the judgment are a vindication for Pelser. But let’s leave him to whatever celebrations he may be having. The rest of us might well have some questions about a person who would make such serious allegations to such a wide group of people without being able to substantiate them. Does this person understand the real significance of a claim of plagiarism, we might ask? And what serious academic would claim that allegations of plagiarism were not defamatory? Does the behaviour, as found by the judge, indicate a suitable temperament for an academic? – Obviously, in the opinion of the University of the North-West, it does, since Miruka is listed as a professor in the university’s Graduate School of Business and Government Leadership, 2016 welcome brochure.
It’s a brochure is filled with irony given the story that emerged in Pelser’s court case. The graduate school’s values include among others, “human dignity, integrity, tolerance, respect, commitment to excellence, scholarly engagement, academic freedom and justice”.
The courses offered will give students an understanding and respect for the “rules of plagiarism”. They will be able to take full responsibility for their work and to apply various learning strategies “in a self-critical manner”.
They will learn to “effectively listen, negotiate, persuade and present sound arguments” as well as showing self-awareness. Finally there’s this: students must show “mastery” of the comprehensive skills needed for “managing and resolving conflict” at all levels, and these skills should be demonstrated in “communicating, advocating, negotiating, mediating and arbitrating”. After reading the judgment, I couldn’t help thinking that these skills all seem to have been singularly lacking in the way the Pelser matter was handled: if I were a prospective student I’d be asking some pointed questions.

Pelser v Miruka