South Africa


UCT council publicly splits over governance allegations as VC and chair fail to recuse themselves from vote

On Thursday night, the UCT Council voted to investigate the university’s own senate rather than look into governance concerns around vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng and council chair Babalwa Ngonyama. Now a number of council members, including the Law Faculty dean, Professor Danwood Chirwa, have gone public with their dissent.

Concerns about good governance at UCT have amplified following a meeting of the UCT Council on Thursday night which has itself been described as riddled with irregularities.

The meeting was held in the wake of dramatic events at the UCT Senate gathering on Friday, 30 September, at which it was alleged that UCT Council chair Babalwa Ngonyama had misled the body over the circumstances around the departure of senior administrator Lis Lange.

Three days later, Daily Maverick published a lengthy investigation which recorded concerns from UCT insiders that the university is being brought to the brink of a governance crisis through the actions of Ngonyama and vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

At the special council meeting on Thursday night called to discuss these matters, Daily Maverick understands that there was a stark division in opinions over how to handle the way forward.

Half the council supported the launch of an independent panel, chaired by a retired judge, to investigate the governance allegations involving Phakeng and Ngonyama.

The other half of the council members favoured an idea championed by Phakeng and Ngonyama: to instead investigate the UCT Senate for potential procedural irregularities over the senate meeting at which governance concerns were raised.

Twenty-eight council members cast their ballots, with 14 voting for the first option and 14 for the second.

The deciding vote was cast by deputy council chair Pheladi Gwangwa: the UCT Council will investigate “some concerning governance and procedural matters relating to the senate meeting on 30 September.”  

Gwangwa communicated as much to the UCT community in a memo distributed on Thursday night which contained no mention of the council’s split on the matter, and no mention of the rejected possibility of an investigation into Phakeng, Ngonyama and wider governance concerns.

In the memo, Gwangwa wrote: “I must commend Council members for carrying out such a difficult discussion in the most cordial way, and applying their minds to finding resolutions that are in the best interest of the university.”

This is at odds with the descriptions Daily Maverick has received of the council meeting, with one member summarising events as follows: “It was bad, and then it got worse.”

Virtually unprecedented move

On Friday morning, 13 members of the UCT Council released a statement rejecting Gwangwa’s memo and expressing serious concerns about both the council meeting and the wider governance issues. Among the signatories is Professor Danwood Chirwa, dean of UCT’s Law Faculty.

Proceedings of the UCT Council are supposed to be kept confidential. Daily Maverick understands that for council members to go public in this way with a signed statement is virtually unprecedented.

The 12 other dissenting UCT Council members are Sheila Barsel, Malcolm Campbell, Michael Cardo, Ezra Davids, Marlene le Roux, Shuaib Manjra, Nazeema Mohamed, Ntobeko Ntusi, Jacques Rousseau, Gareth van Onselen, Samuel Chetty and Dianna Yach.

Daily Maverick is reliably informed that the letter was supported by a number of additional council members who declined to make their endorsement public.

One of the major concerns expressed in the dissenting letter was that council chair Ngonyama “did not recuse herself from the vote despite considered advice to do so, her obvious conflict of interest, and the potential risk to the university”.

News24 has reported that Phakeng also did not recuse herself from the vote, which Daily Maverick has since confirmed.

The fact that Ngonyama and Phakeng voted on the matter would seem a clear violation of UCT’s conflict of interest policy, which states:

“A member of Council, a committee or of staff with a conflict of interest is obliged to recuse himself or herself (immediately withdraw) from the situation which is linked to the conflict, or during the discussion of the matter and the voting thereon.”

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Another potential irregularity raised by the dissenting council members was the fact that the deciding vote was cast by deputy council chair Gwangwa – who is also chair of the university’s human resources committee.

This also amounts to a potential conflict of interest, the letter states, because Gwangwa’s HR role makes her a “central protagonist” in the circumstances around the departure of Lis Lange.

“We believe that these potential irregularities render the decision of Council fatally flawed. Both the process leading up to the vote, and the outcome to which it gave rise, cannot be reconciled with the principles of good governance,” the 13 council members wrote.

They also described Gwangwa’s post-meeting memo as “inaccurate”, adding: “We distance ourselves from it; and we reserve our rights on the way forward.”

The letter also expressed concern over the fact that a number of council members – as reported in Daily Maverick’s investigation – have repeatedly requested special council meetings to discuss wider governance concerns.

“These requests have been systematically thwarted,” the council members wrote.

In the week since the events of the UCT Senate brought governance issues at the university to a wider audience, both Ngonyama and Phakeng have sought to deflect scrutiny onto the senate in their statements on the matter.

Ngonyama sent a letter to the senate complaining of “an irregularity in the conduct of Senate proceedings and an attack on the integrity of the office of Chair of Council”, while Phakeng wrote in a memo to the UCT community that she would be working “to take the actions required to restore the stability of Senate”.

In response, the UCT Academics Union released a statement rejecting both Ngonyama and Phakeng’s assertions “in the strongest possible terms”.

It wrote: “Senate has acted both responsibly and with propriety in support of proper academic leadership and good governance”. 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 or previous stories:

  • 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; and
  • Daily Maverick general manager: Reader revenue & books Fran Beighton’s father-in-law is Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics Peter Beighton.

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Alastair Moffat says:

    Oh dear.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Black excellence shall not be criticised. Fullstop.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    It is quite concerning to read about the situation at UCT one of our premier institutions of higher learning respected world wide in terms of academic standards and research. One finds the public airing of the differences within the university council, the ultimate body of authority in the university to be very childish given the academic level of the persons involved. The solutions that were being looked at became a zero sum game. That ought not to be the case and a middle ground ought to have been found that places the interests of the students ad graduates as paramount not of the senate and council members. The appointment of a judge would be a matter of serious contention and the question would be of course who is that judge. That judges are controversial themselves is reflected in the refusal to accept the appointment of a judge and if the matter ends in court it would be a lengthy litigation. The issue of egos and reputations has become very central and the university must attempt to get a mediation without undermining the authoritative structures of the university. The Chancellor has to come in as a person who is outside the environment and get the parties to at least find a common mechanism that can help all parties involved to accept. A cancel culture seems to exist within the university and has to be addressed as it is very toxic and dangerous for academic freedom.

  • Ryckard Blake says:

    What happened to the many comments posted earlier?

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    As a UCT staff member of 43 years standing, I have to say that this is the most demoralising crisis we have had in all that time. Allegations and counter-allegations of lying from the highest levels of our University; senior academics and PASS staff resigning in droves; non-disclosure agreements – and doubtless secret financial settlements – suddenly becoming the norm. And when UCT Senate decides we need to investigate it, our own Council decides WE need to investigated!

    Seriously, this cannot go on: very senior people in Council voting with complete disregard for blatant conflicts of interest; complete silence on what the now former Ombud went public with, because Council was not investigating it – a public inquiry, please, chaired by a distinguished retired judge or similar!!

    • Bill Gild says:

      This latest crisis, one of many to roil UCT in recent years, is more than demoralising; it indicates the depths to which UCT has sunk since Max Price’s appeasement of a clutch of violent and racist thugs in 2016, which process has only accelerated since. In the author’s view, UCT is now fully “captured” by those cloaked in a mantle of victimhood, determined to destroy what what once a fine university. It bodes ill, not only for higher education in SA, but for the country, generally.

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