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UCT ructions — Vice-chancellor cuts short five-month sabbatical amid governance turmoil

UCT ructions — Vice-chancellor cuts short five-month sabbatical amid governance turmoil
From left: University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Esa Alexander) | Chair of Council, University of Cape Town, Babalwa Ngonyama. (Photo: UCT news) | Gallo Images

Following an explosive meeting of the UCT Senate last week and the publication of a Daily Maverick investigation into an alleged governance crisis at UCT, Mamokgethi Phakeng has returned from sabbatical after just a month.

UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng has cut short an extended leave period to return to “full-time leadership” of the university as of 5 October, it was announced on Tuesday.

A statement published by UCT Council Chair Babalwa Ngonyama read:

“The reason for the VC’s return from her well-deserved sabbatical is that, as Chair of Council, I am deeply concerned by any matters that impact negatively on the university’s reputation and academic credibility. I remain firmly committed to resolving these issues in the spirit of unity, dialogue and mutual understanding. In the interim, I believe it to be appropriate for the VC to resume her full-time leadership position.”

Phakeng had announced to the university in August that she was embarking on a five-month sabbatical from 1 September 2022 to 2 February 2023. She described the leave period as motivated by a “need to take time out to refresh, reflect and recharge” following consistent “crisis and a lot of stress to deal with”.

Her abrupt return to work follows an explosive meeting of the university Senate last Friday at which it was alleged that Council Chair Ngonyama may have deliberately misled the institution’s governing bodies about the circumstances around the departure of a senior administrator.

Dark days: Accusations of capture and governance instability rock UCT

Both Ngonyama and Phakeng had informed the Senate that UCT’s highly respected former vice-chancellor for teaching and learning, Lis Lange, had voluntarily opted not to renew her contract and leave her post with immediate effect in May 2022 for “personal reasons”.

In a letter read to the Senate on Friday 30 September, however, Lange said that despite signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), she felt compelled to break her silence to clarify that she had been effectively forced from her post by Ngonyama in accordance with Phakeng’s wishes. Lange wrote that she was prepared to swear to this version of events under oath.


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Daily Maverick has since published an investigation detailing claims of bullying, intimidation and cover-ups from Phakeng and Ngonyama. It has been alleged by multiple current and former UCT staff members that Phakeng’s hostile leadership style has led to an exodus of senior administrators – and that Ngonyama’s apparent desire to protect the VC from accountability may have brought the university to the brink of a governance crisis.

A special UCT Council meeting, which Phakeng will attend, is now scheduled for Thursday.

Meanwhile, in a letter sent to Senate by Ngonyama after last Friday’s meeting, seen by Daily Maverick, the Chair has complained that her explanation of Lange’s departure should have remained “confidential to Senate and its members”, rather than being shared with non-Senate members like Lange.

The events of the last Senate meeting, the Chair asserts, amount to “an irregularity in the conduct of Senate proceedings and an attack on the integrity of the office of Chair of Council”.

Ngonyama’s letter does not explain the contradictions between Lange’s version of events around her departure from office and the Chair’s own.

She writes that while she understands that “this has led to a lot of anger, animosity and frustration amongst Senate members”, she wishes to “reassure you, however, that there is a different version to what has been tabled to date, which version I am sure, shall be fully ventilated in due course in the appropriate forum”.

Ngonyama concluded her letter with an exhortation to “restore the dignity of Senate as an apex academic body of the university”. 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.
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  • Rob Martin says:

    If I remember my VPs when I was at varsity, they were people in integrity, academics and liberal minded. They had no time for this constant “palace politics” that seems to take place these days.
    Just get on and do your job. This is an apolitical job, not an ongoing personal power struggle.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    Those who engage in the acts of creating chaos in universities, forget one thing, that the integrity, quality and credibility of the institutions qualifications is brought into question. Of primary importance, are the students and graduates of the institution. The theatrics of getting to the Principal and possibly manufactured allegations is a very dangerous thing to do in a higher institution of higher learning. To invite the compromised Minister of Higher Education who is a very serious danger to higher education, does not help. The University Council must handle this matter very well in a fair balanced manner with the interests of students and graduates of the university at heart. It would be a tragedy that the reputation of the university is dragged into mud through politricks.

    • Ryckard Blake says:

      “it was alleged that Council Chair Ngonyama may have deliberately misled the institution’s governing bodies about the circumstances around the departure of a senior administrator.”
      and
      “In a letter read to the Senate on Friday 30 September, however, Lange said that . . . . she felt compelled to break her silence to clarify that she had been effectively forced from her post by Ngonyama in accordance with Phakeng’s wishes.”
      Obviously, either Phakeng-Ngonyama or Lange is lying.
      Which party do you, Ngcukana, imply is dragging the reputation of the university through the mud ?
      If Ngonyama misled senate on a a serious issue, and she really believes in “restore(ing) the dignity of Senate as an apex academic body of the university” she has to dismiss Phakeng, and follow up by herself resigning her chairship of the Council, for her central role in bringing UCT into disrepute.
      Do these imposters have absolutely no sense of honour?

      • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

        As a former member of a University Council, the Senate is responsible for the entire academic programme of the University. It is represented in the
        University Council. You are correct to point out that the Senate is the apex academic body of the university. The person whom you are referring to had this issue in May and waits until September to write a letter to the Council. Now, this person is said to have signed a non – disclosure agreement and later feels that she needs to “violate” such. It is in such context that you need to understand my assertions because a lot of questions arise including why now and why does she include the Vice Chancellor in a matter between her and Ngonyama and whether she can prove the allegations that this was done with the wishes of the Vice Chancellor. In you response you ignore the response of Ngonyama that a different version from that of Lange will be put before Council. Lange should have acted as an academic in a very responsible manner through the appropriate channels than the media. Phakeng does not back down from any clowns and I think you must know by now because one has been following issues at UCT as one of our premier universities. That Blade Nzimande must be kept out as a present danger to our higher education is what he has been saying about UNISA. You have a Modidima Mannya fired for corruption as head of education in the Eastern Cape in 2012 saying drivel about the Unisa Principal and is entertained by Blade.

        • Ryckard Blake says:

          To use a word you seem to like, you drivel on endlessly with red herrings, without answering my question: who do you think is lying about whether Lange resigned because SHE wanted to, or whether Phakeng wanted her out. You imply Lange is a clown?
          Nothing to do with Nzimande or Mannya. Extinguish you straw man attempted distractions, rather comment on Andrew Farrer’s comment below.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Funny how the over promoted destructive cadres who have no integrity are so quick to complain that their integrity has been attacked and that the disclosures that exposed them shouldn’t have been disclosed. Now the partners in crime are panicking and regrouping to get their stories right.

    • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

      You really believe in your drivel that the Vice – Chancellor was deployed. This means that you have never seen the door of a University. The University Principal is employed by the University Council not government. When you are not well informed avoid parading your ignorance in public. You just heard about the word deployment and you insert it even where it does not fit.

      • Ryckard Blake says:

        Judging by the worth of his and your comments, I would guess that Sydney Kaye has benefited from a far better education than you have.
        The Black Transformation activists first transform the council (guided by lists of individuals needing to be deployed); the transformed council then elects the Chair from its party. The new Chair, supported by her councillors, then appoints the Vice-Chancellor. That process fits my understanding of the term “deployment”. Makgopa, Kgwadi, the list of deployees presiding over the decline of once-admired universities provides endless proof.
        And please, Cunningham, try to hide your slip – what the late Belinda Bozzoli called “Clientilism” by avoiding focus on “Employment”. Great V-Cs do not do it for the money.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    one of the highly regarded university’s in the world and it has come down to this. a political squabble probably because someone cannot access the cash box. and what about the students – dumped like the rest of the people of South Africa by an incompetent government and now our Universities. Wonder which Universities will pop out of the woodwork in the future. sad very sad

  • Chris 123 says:

    Just look where UCT is in world rankings today compared to previous years says it all.

  • Brian Cotter says:

    Reading the “Hyena” book, a hyena positive enterprise is an enterprise or organisation taken over by workplace hyenas and where the dominant culture is one of pervasive bullying and other forms of workplace violence. This was the case with Enron and it eventually led to the downfall of the giant. For downfall, read UCT world rankings, 2020 posn 136, 2021 posn 155, 2022 posn 183. There is a downward trend.

  • Paul Zille says:

    A 5-month extraordinary sabbatical “to refresh, reflect and recharge”. Say no more.

    • John Smythe says:

      I laughed myself silly when I read that. So, she can’t reflect and recharge in the 15 days or less the rest of us get. It would be nice if all of us could get 5 months. Do your job, Phakeng!

      • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

        The problem of people who have never seen the door of a university they will hardly know what a sabbatical means. They would think it is a holiday but it is not. Academics take a sabbatical meaning absence of leave to carry out a particular educational project or to do a particular project that has academic relevance or study. When you are illiterate about matters you must not comment about issues you are ignorant of. She was granted a Sabbatical by the University Council after they had considered the work she was going to do. Labourers in suits are a problem.

  • andrew farrer says:

    Hau! my lies were meant for the senate only

  • Richard Baker says:

    5 month “…… time out to refresh, reflect and recharge” following consistent “crisis and a lot of stress to deal with”.
    Nice work if you can get it!
    She should try living in the real world of those who go to work, establish and run businesses, create jobs and wealth and pay the taxes which cover her salary and other very generous benefits. All under these most trying of times-no stress or crisis for them?!!
    Just her comments tell us all we need to know about her- disgraceful!

  • Dave Buerger Buerger says:

    Her comments seem to indicate that she has a big chip on her shoulder. Not befitting of someone holding down her position in a world class institution.

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