Dark days: Accusations of capture and governance instability rock UCT
South Africa’s top university has lost almost half its senior leadership team over the past four years. The body supposed to act as watchdog for the institution, the UCT Council, is described as increasingly toxic, with accusations of racism and claims of cover-ups. Now matters look to be coming to a head with the accusation that both the Vice-Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, and the Chair of the UCT Council, Babalwa Ngonyama, have deliberately misled the university’s governing bodies.
When the announcement was made in May 2022 that UCT’s deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning Lis Lange was leaving her post, the news was met with concern. Lange was described by academic commentator Jonathan Jansen as “one of the best deputy vice-chancellors this country has ever had”. Her departure was widely felt to be a major loss to UCT.
Both UCT Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng and the Chair of UCT Council Babalwa Ngonyama subsequently told the UCT Senate separately that Lange’s departure was initiated by Lange herself, was entirely voluntary, and was a decision made for “personal reasons”.
But in an explosive Senate meeting held on Friday, 30 September, a letter from Lange was read out in which she stated that she had effectively been forced out of her position by Ngonyama, seemingly at Phakeng’s behest. Lange wrote that she was prepared to testify to this effect under oath.
The charge that Phakeng and Ngonyama may have deliberately misled UCT’s Senate is serious, and would amount to a fundamental governance breach.
“The Council of an institution, its Senate and vice-chancellor through the Council, are accountable for their actions to the state through the Minister of Education,” UCT states on its website.
But the allegations relating to this specific incident also have a wider resonance and broader implications.
Amid an exodus of senior members of the UCT administration, multiple current and former UCT insiders have told Daily Maverick of a culture of fear and secrecy that appears to have taken root under the leadership of Vice-Chancellor (VC) Phakeng and Council chair Ngonyama.
Since Phakeng first took office in 2018, at least 11 high-ranking UCT executive directors, deputy vice-chancellors and other senior administration members have left the institution. Three more are currently either suspended or negotiating exits.
Departing figures have in at least three cases Daily Maverick is aware of been made to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), meaning that they cannot speak publicly about the reasons for their exit. Severance packages have also been paid out.
Accusations of bullying and intimidation were first made against Phakeng less than two years into her first term. In July 2020, UCT Ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa went public with her 2019 report, which included the fact that 37 individuals had approached her with complaints about Phakeng’s professional conduct, citing feeling “bullied, silenced, undermined, rebuked and/or treated unfairly”.
Makamandela-Mguqulwa said at the time that she was publicising her findings out of fear that UCT would otherwise try to stifle them. Her decision to do so tipped her already fraught relationship with Phakeng into open warfare, and Makamandela-Mguqulwa left the university at the end of her term in December 2021, with disciplinary charges still hanging over her head.
This was despite the fact that — to Daily Maverick’s knowledge — at least two other reports looking into Phakeng’s leadership style commissioned by the UCT Council came to similar conclusions as the Ombud herself. Senior leaders who have spoken honestly about their challenging relationships with Phakeng have found themselves targeted.
According to documents seen by Daily Maverick, a plan was devised in May 2020 to try to create a “functioning executive team” against the backdrop of the Ombud’s findings. In 2021, a consultancy called The Board Practice was commissioned by the UCT Council to further investigate the working dynamics within UCT’s senior leadership. The resulting report has yet to be presented to the Council, prompting suspicions that it too may have arrived at damning conclusions.
Among the aims of the UCT Council’s plan was to create a “psychologically safe” environment. One element was for Phakeng to receive leadership coaching.
That this plan has not succeeded was testified to by the UCT insiders who spoke to Daily Maverick over the course of several months this year on strict condition of anonymity. This insistence on anonymity was also experienced by Makamandela-Mguqulwa, who wrote in her 2019 report: “Not one of those who brought these issues [about Phakeng] wanted me to approach the VC, as they feared retaliation”.
Exodus of senior admin staff
“Over the past four years, 11 of the 30 members of the senior leadership team vacated their positions,” UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola confirmed to Daily Maverick.
“Five of them retired when they turned 65; two took early retirement; two chose not to renew their terms and two left following disciplinary processes”.
Since Moholola gave comment on this to Daily Maverick, there have been further developments. Executive Director of Communication Gerda Kruger was suspended by Phakeng, pending an investigation, on what are understood to be trumped-up charges. Kruger’s replacement in an acting capacity, Kylie Hatton, has just resigned. Chief Operating Officer Reno Morar and deputy Vice-Chancellor Sue Harrison are known to be negotiating their exits, while Registrar Royston Pillay has been on long bouts of sick leave.
This brings the number of senior leadership departures to 14, meaning that almost half the team that was in place when Phakeng took office will be gone by the end of this year.
Moholola denied that there was anything untoward about this volume of leadership departures and disciplinary incidents under Phakeng’s regime, describing the exodus as “inevitable, normal and certainly not a new occurrence”.
University insiders who spoke to Daily Maverick felt differently, saying that the dominant reason for the departures was the difficulty of working for Phakeng.
Daily Maverick contacted both Phakeng and Ngonyama for comment on the allegations contained in this article, but neither would give comment personally.
A response sent on their behalf by UCT spokesperson Moholola on Sunday night stated:
“It is of grave concern that the Daily Maverick, which is supposed to be impartial, has through this query presented a number of sweeping claims by unnamed individuals without any substantiation by such sources and any independent interrogation or probing by the publication”.
Moholola did not respond to the specific questions put to Phakeng and Ngonyama.
In interviews with Daily Maverick, the VC was consistently described as paranoid about perceived threats to her authority and the notion that those around her are working to undermine her.
“It is all about plots, caucuses, cabals,” one said.
This paranoia has led Phakeng to increasingly centralise power around her office, bringing both the Finance and Human Resources heads closer to her orbit — both metaphorically and physically: the head of Finance is now based within the VC’s office — than has previously been the case for vice-chancellors.
The same insider said that they left UCT because there was “a total breakdown of my relationship with the VC,” which they described as almost consistently the case for colleagues who are viewed by Phakeng as pushing back on her wishes or taking independent action.
Former Ombud Makamandela-Mguqulwa is the only senior member of UCT staff to date to go on record with detailed accusations of the hostility she claims to have received from Phakeng, in emails sent to the UCT Council seen by Daily Maverick.
These claims closely tally with other allegations from colleagues who wish to stay anonymous.
Among Makamandela-Mguqulwa’s claims were that Phakeng refused to meet with her in the Ombud’s office, as had been the case with previous vice-chancellors, because “no principal goes to a learner’s office”.
Makamandela-Mguqulwa also wrote that Phakeng told her “she keeps a black book in which she notes all the names of the people who do not like or support her”.
Two contentious staff departures
Of all the departures from the non-teaching side of UCT staff, the two to cause most consternation in recent months have been those of two highly respected female executives: the deputy vice-chancellor in charge of transformation, Loretta Feris, and the already mentioned deputy vice-chancellor in charge of learning and teaching, Lis Lange.
Both Feris and Lange signed NDAs, which — until Friday’s Senate meeting — has made the details around their exits publicly unknown. Both left their positions well before their contracts were up, however, and without having their contracts renewed for another five years as would have been possible.
Feris’s departure in April 2021 caused UCT’s Black Academic Caucus to release a statement noting “with disappointment” Phakeng’s failure to address “the pattern of resignations from senior positions or unhappy exits over the past several months”.
When it was announced that Lange would be leaving her post at the end of April 2022, well-known academic and commentator Jonathan Jansen wrote on Facebook:
“The University of Cape Town has just lost through early resignation one of the best deputy vice-chancellors (academic) this country has ever had. Absolutely devastating and the loss will be felt across higher education for years to come”.
Both Phakeng and Ngonyama have since been summoned to Senate to explain Lange’s confounding exit.
According to the Senate minutes of 10 and 27 June 2022, the VC told Senate, “that she had approached [Lange] and asked if she wished to seek a second term as DVC, which [Lange] had indicated she did not wish to do. [Lange] had also indicated that her reasons for wanting to vacate the position prior to it formally coming to an end in February 2023 were personal in nature”.
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Ngonyama, meanwhile, informed Senate that she told Lange to discuss the renewal of her contract with “her line manager — the vice-chancellor”, and only talked to Lange about it in early April 2022. Lange, she wrote, “decided that she did not want to be considered for renewal for reasons that are both personal and confidential”.
In the letter from Lange which was read out at the most recent Senate meeting, Lange wrote:
“Until now I have kept silent in relation to the debate and speculation around my not seeking a second term as DVC and my stepping down before the end of my term. The content of Ms Ngonyama’s response to Senate obliges me to break my silence. It is one thing to agree to say as little as possible for the University’s sake and quite another to misrepresent things and create ‘alternative facts’, some of which I believe paint me in a light that is contrary to my personality and to my ethical principles.”
Lange added that she had confirmed with her lawyer that breaking her silence in this way did not violate the terms of her NDA. She stated:
“The process that led to my stepping down was initiated by the Chairperson of Council… My first conversation with the Chair of Council about my future at UCT took place on 3 January 2022. In that conversation the Chairperson conveyed to me that the relationship between the VC and me had broken down and that my tenure could not go beyond 2022.”
Lange also claimed that she was told by Ngonyama that even if she wished to renew her contract for a second term, “no council would appoint a DVC against the VC’s wishes”.
Contacted by Daily Maverick for comment following Friday’s Senate meeting, Lange responded by email:
“My letter to Senate speaks for itself. It was not my intention for it to be leaked to the press. It is regrettable that an internal matter to UCT is in the public domain before the university Senate has had the opportunity to apply its mind to the issue. I do not wish to make further comments.”
Transformation debates used as ‘figleaf’
Insiders say that when challenged, Phakeng paints her critics as enemies of transformation who are unwilling to accept the authority of a black woman at the head of a historically predominantly white institution. (Phakeng is the third black vice-chancellor of UCT, following Njabulo Ndebele and Mamphela Ramphele.)
There is no doubt that these racial currents do exist at UCT. Following the July 2018 suicide of the head of the university’s Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Bongani Mayosi, a report into his death was commissioned. When released in March 2019, one of the report’s findings was that there was insufficient support for black academics in leadership positions at UCT.
“Many senior black staff interviewed described how their positions exposed them to being seen as champions of transformation by the black constituency, and perceived as a threat to the status quo by some white colleagues. There is often little understanding of this dilemma faced by black leaders at UCT,” the report stated.
In addition to these legitimate challenges, however, Phakeng also has some vocal and powerful supporters — notably, the Economic Freedom Fighters — who have promoted the framing of her tenure at UCT as one that only racists would criticise.
When Phakeng won reappointment for a second term as VC in late March 2022, the EFF released a statement lauding Phakeng for being “at the centre of a new form of leadership, which promotes African values, promotes consultative relations with students in particular as critical stakeholders and has been a fierce opponent to a racist old guard that has been resistant to change”.
Phakeng, the EFF alleged, has had to face “a poisonous smear campaign” operating “on the racist trope that a black woman in power is irrational, temperamental and prone to emotionality and bullying”.
Former Ombud Makamandela-Mguqulwa expressed her discomfort with this kind of narrative in an email to the UCT Council sent on 17 August 2020.
“It bothers me that the bullying complaints are publicly reduced either to a ‘tiff’ between myself and her [Phakeng] or to my office being ‘weaponized’ and used by (racist) white people. My office is independent and open to all UCT stakeholders and the 37 complainants consisted of both black and white, male and female, academics, PASS [Professional, Administrative and Support Staff] staff and students among others,” Makamandela-Mguqulwa wrote.
“I also wish to categorically share with Council that, as Ombud and as a person, I find the view that black women should not be held accountable (a view that seems to underlie the approach of Council as reported by the Chair) short-sighted and feel strongly that it does huge disservice to black people and to anyone else for that matter.”
Some of Phakeng’s moves have confounded even generally staunch defenders of the VC.
In the case of departed deputy vice-chancellor Loretta Feris, a brown woman, she was replaced in her transformation role in April 2021 by a 69-year-old white British man (Martin Hall) championed by Phakeng. The two were paid overlapping salaries of around R2-million annually for a period while Hall acted in the role.
The move so angered the president of the UCT Convocation, Eddie Maloka, that he resigned in protest. In a scathing resignation letter, Maloka said that he “could not explain” why Hall had replaced a woman of colour leading UCT’s transformation project.
Both UCT’s Student Representative Council (SRC) and the Black Academic Caucus opposed the appointment of Hall even temporarily. The SRC pointed out that the acting appointment of Hall contradicted the principles of UCT’s own employment equity policy.
Phakeng insisted at the time, however: “It is deeply problematic to suggest that the ability of members to serve the university…can only be on the basis of their race, age and gender”.
She struck a different tone in a direct message she wrote via Facebook, however, following the departure of deputy vice-chancellor Lis Lange.
In a message sent to unknown recipients seen by Daily Maverick, she hinted that Lange’s departure was the result of personal conflict between Lange and herself — and, specifically, that Lange was resentful of Phakeng’s position.
Phakeng referred to Lange as a “white woman DVC who is an associate professor and is very upset about the success of a black African woman [Phakeng] full professor and rated scientist”.
Phakeng also described Lange as “anti-transformation”, a charge which was dismissed by numerous former colleagues of Lange’s as absurd.
“The idea that [Phakeng] is persecuted for pushing transformation is nonsense. It’s a figleaf,” one UCT insider told Daily Maverick.
“Of course there are institutional challenges around transformation. UCT is not unique, and transformation is highly contested. But if anything, Phakeng has received probably more support than any VC ever. Because people are shit-scared [of the possibility that] on their watch, a black woman VC went under.”
UCT Council ‘cowed’
Those who spoke to Daily Maverick over the past months claimed that Phakeng has received constant protection from UCT’s Council chair, Babalwa Ngonyama.
Ngonyama, a finance mogul who took up the role of leading UCT’s governing body in July 2020, was immediately thrown into the firestorm around the Phakeng bullying allegations reported by the Ombud. This was a problem that the former Council chair, Sipho Pityana, had — in the words of an insider — “kicked for touch” at the end of his tenure, and constituted an unenviable baptism for Ngonyama.
To the Ombud’s disappointment, however, Ngonyama upheld Phakeng’s insistence that the bullying report not be presented to Council with a question and answer session.
After two meetings with Ngonyama, Makamandela-Mguqulwa wrote that she could not continue working “in a way that departs significantly from the known governance principles”. She also expressed doubt that Ngonyama had “honest intentions to address the current situation fairly and honestly”.
While the UCT Council is supposed to be the university’s highest decision-making body, it has been alleged that Ngonyama and Phakeng have effectively colluded to withhold or delay information from reaching the Council. This was the case, it is claimed, with regard to the departures of both Feris and Lange.
UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola told Daily Maverick such claims were “unfounded”.
He said: “The UCT Council is responsible for approving all candidates recommended for appointment at senior leadership level, either on an acting or substantive basis. It would therefore be odd to claim that the very same Council that approves appointments is not informed about any vacancies or recruitment processes at senior leadership level. At each meeting where such updates are shared, Council members are at full liberty to discuss and pose any questions they may have, and these are responded to.”
Recent events have, however, rendered questionable the claim that Council members are “at full liberty” to raise any issues.
A “Special” Council meeting — one scheduled outside normal meeting intervals — must be called by the Chair at any point if it has the support of at least five Council members. Such a meeting was demanded to discuss serious governance concerns in September, but according to correspondence seen by Daily Maverick, was cancelled by Ngonyama on the basis that “supporting documentation” was not provided — a claim described as spurious by those in the know.
According to numerous accounts received by Daily Maverick, the proceedings of the UCT Council have become progressively more toxic and racialised.
One brown Council member who raised governance concerns in recent months was told that the UCT Council was not a “Coloured Affairs committee”, in an insulting reference to apartheid legislation. On another recent occasion, a white Council member raising concerns was informed that his views reflected “white supremacy”.
Moholola did not dispute the latter incident, but said it was “a conversation between members outside a meeting”. He added that Council discussions may become “robust”, but members “endeavour to engage in a cordial and constructive manner at all times”.
Daily Maverick was given consistent descriptions of the UCT Council as consisting of a handful of members attempting to pump the brakes on what is seen as an increasingly dictatorial leadership style by Phakeng and Ngonyama, with the majority of members more compliant.
Ngonyama’s alleged comment to Lange that the council would never support a candidate of which the VC disapproved takes on some credibility in this light.
“It is difficult in Council because they are cowed now,” one insider said.
“Support for [Ngonyama and Phakeng] is presented as pushing back against the stereotype that Africans can’t lead. And who wants to be anti-African?”
Lego library idea has academics in a froth
Most of these issues have stayed within the university’s administration building. Among UCT’s teaching staff, there is some unease over Phakeng’s divisive social media brand and her exhortations to academic deans to “monetise” their disciplines. On one matter in particular, however, academics have been roused to express vocal criticism recently.
The catastrophic fire which raged through UCT in April 2021, after starting on the mountainside bordering the campus, destroyed the UCT library’s historic Jagger Reading Room, housing irreplaceable book collections and archival material.
Phakeng has since spoken of the need to “rebuild and re-imagine the Jagger”, in service of which “imaginarium workshops” hosted by UCT’s Futures Think Tank were held with multiple different “stakeholders”, including primary school students — seemingly on the basis that they may one day attend UCT and use the library.
“Interesting” ideas emerging from the workshops, according to a UCT update in August 2022, have included “knocking the entire building down and replacing it with a garden that has the best possible wifi”.
The same UCT report specified that an idea favoured by Phakeng was to have an area “where people can just sit and relax while playing with Lego blocks”.
To say that these ideas have been greeted with horror by some academics would be an understatement. In an email thread seen by Daily Maverick, the fact that the relevant library staff have “experienced virtually no contact from central UCT management since the fire, and were the last to be consulted about the restoration”, was singled out for special critique.
“We will not accept losing the existence of a dedicated space on campus for rare books and archival material to be consulted for research and teaching to create another internet/food café and/or general social space,” one academic wrote.
Also mentioned with concern: the fact that the normal tender process for projects of this nature was criticised by one of the project leaders as “very strict” and “very narrow”, and not sufficiently “inclusive”.
An academic wrote in response: “Good governance consists of ‘very strict’ tender processes guided by leaders who are the relevant experts”.
“There is a governance crisis at UCT, and we have to trigger the public and the Minister [of Higher Education] to the fact that something is seriously amiss.”
That is how one of the UCT figures who spoke to Daily Maverick explained their decision to share their concerns with the media.
One of the points made by multiple sources was that UCT is partly funded with public money — and the amounts being spent on payouts and lawyers’ fees to facilitate the departure of senior staff is likely to be significant.
As one insider put it: “NDAs come with price tags.”
Spokesperson Moholola declined to provide Daily Maverick with the relevant sums, saying: “This — like all other financial information — will be formally disclosed in the UCT financial report at an appropriate time”.
He added: “Our past experience taught us how important it is to follow the law to the tee to avoid litigation and being sued. The legal fees incurred are significantly [his emphasis] less than the costs of missing an important legal step. We are now able to focus on trying to solve the funding crisis because there is no unnecessary pending litigation consuming our time.”
The use of NDAs at all in universities is reportedly extremely unusual.
Mohlolola suggested the apparently increasingly common use of NDAs at UCT was part of the university’s “own unique way of doing things”, and said: “It would be myopic for any executive member to avoid doing things differently simply because they are unheard of for universities”.
The spokesperson also said that NDAs were necessary to protect UCT’s confidential information, plans, ideas and intellectual property.
Following the dramatic events at Friday’s Senate meeting, the body overwhelmingly voted in favour of the formation of a committee to investigate the Lange allegations. Ngonyama, meanwhile, has called a special meeting of the UCT Council on Thursday, 6 October.
The greatest fear expressed by those who spoke to Daily Maverick was that a kind of “capture” of the university is being effected by means of ensuring that all significant roles in both the administration and the Council are filled by people unlikely to challenge the leadership of Phakeng and Ngonyama. If these vital posts are staffed mainly on the basis of compliance, the concern goes, the effect is likely to be felt in UCT management down the line.
Allegations of information being kept from Council or Senate, meanwhile, have sparked further concerns about what else might be happening in the shadows at Africa’s top university.
In the words of one insider:
“Higher education is vulnerable, and its destruction can happen very quickly.” DM
Disclosure: In the interests of transparency, Daily Maverick here lists staff members and paid contributors with links to UCT. None of the people listed below was quoted in, or used as sources for, this story:
- Maverick Citizen Editor Mark Heywood is an adjunct professor at UCT’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance.
- Maverick Citizen Managing Editor Anso Thom’s life partner Gerda Kruger is Executive Director at the UCT Department of Communication and Marketing.
- Daily Maverick paid contributor Pierre de Vos is the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at UCT.
- Daily Maverick day editor Janet Heard’s sister Vicki Heard is the operations manager for the Centre for Higher Education Development at UCT.
- Daily Maverick general manager: Reader revenue & books Fran Beighton’s father-in-law is Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics Peter Beighton.