LEADERSHIP CRISIS?

Clouds continue to gather over UCT vice-chancellor

By Biénne Huisman 15 July 2020
Caption
The University of Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jacques Stander)

In the wake of an unfolding leadership crisis at the University of Cape Town, new heads of the university’s governing council were elected over the weekend. They are finances tycoon Babalwa Ngonyama as chair, and social justice advocate Nazeema Mohamed as her deputy, who stand to serve four-year terms.

Vice-Chancellor (VC) Mamokgethi Phakeng has been accused of bullying the University of Cape Town (UCT) staff, and of squashing an annual university ombud report outlining such complaints against her.

The university’s ombud, Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, told Daily Maverick that she had received a flood of corroborating complaints after publishing her report online on Thursday.

“Since publishing the report on Thursday, I have been inundated with more complaints about the vice-chancellor’s leadership style,” she said. 

“It shows how sometimes people lose hope, sometimes people think ‘What’s the point of speaking out?’ But seeing the complaints made public, it gave more people courage to step forward.”

In the report, which covers the period from 1 July 2018 to 30 June 2019, she notes: 

“During this reporting period a number of work-related complaints came to me about professional interactions with the VC where people felt bullied, silenced, undermined, rebuked and/or treated unfairly. Their pain was visible. 

“Some affected bystanders also came to express fear and told me how they were impacted individually by different incidents. My usual approach is to be guided by the visitor on what they want to achieve by bringing the issue to my attention. Not one of those who brought these issues wanted me to approach the VC, as they feared retaliation.”

Makamandela-Mguqulwa said she made the report public in a bid to expose the truth, after the university’s executive had effectively muzzled her findings since March.

Makamandela-Mguqulwa said her concerns were two-fold: first, Phakeng’s leadership style, and second, how the university’s previous council, under chair Sipho Pityana, failed to act on her findings, which included complaints by 37 individuals against Phakeng.

These findings were originally scheduled for presentation before the university’s council on 14 March, but were taken off the agenda amid a flurry of e-mailed correspondence, including legal advice sought by Phakeng against Makamandela-Mguqulwa’s report in April.

In the emails, Phakeng passionately defends her reputation, questioning the tone of the ombud report, and accusing the ombud of acting outside of her mandate.

On Tuesday 14 July, Makamandela-Mguqulwa poured cold water on speculation that the complaints against Phakeng were a “white racist plot”, and that she was a member of a university faction with “knives out” for the VC.

“The original 37 complainants… they were a mixture of staff from different levels, of all different races,” she said. 

“There were academics and supporting staff too, and a few students. What they had in common was that none of them were keen for me to contact the vice-chancellor, to mediate. They were all so scared. ‘She is going to punish me. She would know,’ many of them kept on saying.

“I mean, why would I want to bring down the vice-chancellor? Why would I let myself be used by any race group? I cannot be manipulated, by any journalist, by any vice-chancellor, black or white, Phakeng or [former VC] Max Price. 

“I am clearly delivering on my mandate. When I assumed this position, I promised to challenge the highest powers, if need be. To hold a mirror to the institution: ‘This is what’s not quite working, please fix it.’ I cannot be forced to sweep the truth under a rug. How can I be party to knives being out? This narrative in itself, it is bullying. 

“I want everyone to stop and breathe, and to think about bullying. The very person who should be reflecting about her leadership style right now, is lashing out to discredit my report. I mean, my office is independent. If you have an issue with an ombud, you don’t go to lawyers. This is bullying.”

First appointed as ombud in 2011 by then council chair Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, Makamandela-Mguqulwa’s role was then described as “impartial dispute resolution practitioner”.  

Created as part of the university’s broader transformation initiative, her office is designed to be independent, and to report to the university council via its chair and deputy chair.

The university website further describes her position: 

“She is available to receive and attempt to resolve the individual complaints and grievances of members of the UCT community; and to recommend procedural changes within the university in response to experience acquired in dealing with individual cases.”

This week, former deputy council chair Debbie Budlender, who served on the council for 15 years, told Daily Maverick that she resigned from the council in March, after Pityana insisted that Makamandela-Mguqulwa’s annual report containing the findings against Phakeng be scrapped from the agenda of a council meeting scheduled for March 14. Budlender said: 

“Before each council meeting, myself, Sipho, the registrar [Royston Pillay] and the VC would meet to discuss the agenda. The morning before this meeting, Sipho said to me: ‘This [report containing the findings against Phakeng] is not going on the agenda.’ I said to him that I’m not comfortable with that.

“So that’s when I decided: ‘I’m out of here.’ I emailed my letter of resignation to all council members. My resignation was not about the VC; it was about the council not getting its report. That was not okay. It was a breach of established practice and a cover-up.”

Makamandela-Mguqulwa said that instead of holding the vice-chancellor to account, Pityana had bowed to her interests. 

“Instead of heeding the report, Sipho sought legal advice to weigh up the risk of releasing the report from lawyers who are not ombuds themselves,” she said. 

“And the VC initiated a court action to stop me from reporting that which is my standard deliverable. Racialising feedback and changing standards and expectation based on race is irresponsible leadership. Black people should not protect each other like that. I wasn’t going to bow to that pressure. If someone transgresses, notwithstanding their race, they should be called on it.”

Makamandela-Mguqulwa said her concerns were two-fold: first, Phakeng’s leadership style, and second, how the university’s previous council, under chair Sipho Pityana, failed to act on her findings, which included complaints by 37 individuals against Phakeng.

Makamandela-Mguqulwa said her colleagues in the ombud fraternity have been supportive. 

“I am a role model in the ombud fraternity,” she said. “Why would I be reckless in my job? I mean, I teach for the International Ombudsman Association.”

Her tenure as ombud at UCT will draw to an end in December. 

“I offered to do two terms [of five years each] because of my own ethics. You don’t want someone in this position for too long.”

In the contested ombud report, Makamandela-Mguqulwa notes: 

“I would be concerned if senior members of the University loved me (all the time). My primary focus has never been to create friendships. Instead, I have endeavoured to establish, at the least, functional independent relationships.”

In an official statement, university spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the ombud report was “receiving the attention of the UCT council” and that a statement to this effect would follow. He said the matter was “confidential” and that, therefore, university executives could not comment.

“This matter was handled by the previous council, whose term ended on 30 June 2020. The newly constituted council met this weekend and will continue the work of the previous council, including dealing with this matter,” said Moholola. 

“Council will issue a statement on the matter. The matter is a confidential one and it is therefore not appropriate to be discussed outside of the council processes in the public space. The executive of UCT deeply respects the confidentiality of this process and will also not comment.”

Pityana did not reply to phone calls or messages from Daily Maverick inviting him to comment on the matter. 

“Please be advised that I’m no longer involved with UCT and it would be inappropriate to comment on its affairs,” he said. 

Earlier this year Pityana – president of Business Unity South Africa (Busa) – was appointed co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s new Africa Regional Stewardship Board. DM

 

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