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UCT Academics’ Union to UCT Council: Stop unlawful decisions or face legal action

UCT Academics’ Union to UCT Council: Stop unlawful decisions or face legal action
Archive photo: University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Esa Alexander)

In the latest development in the University of Cape Town governance crisis, lawyers representing the UCT Academics’ Union have written to the UCT Council demanding that the body ‘remedy the illegality’ of its recent actions or face legal proceedings.

Lawyers have entered the fray at the University of Cape Town, where a governance crisis continues to unfold.

On Monday, law firm Webber Wentzel sent a letter to members of the UCT Council demanding action on behalf of its clients, the UCT Academics’ Union. The union represents full- and part-time academic staff at UCT.

The letter, seen by Daily Maverick, makes reference to the UCT Council meeting on Thursday, 6 October 2022 at which council members voted to launch an investigation into the UCT Senate rather than look into governance concerns around university vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng and council chair Babalwa Ngonyama.

Dark days: Accusations of capture and governance instability rock UCT

Phakeng and Ngonyama did not recuse themselves from the vote, causing almost half the council to subsequently go public with a statement expressing serious concerns about both the council meeting and the wider governance issues at play.

The legal letter sent to the UCT Council on Monday describes the proceedings of the council meeting in question as “unlawful”, as a result of “the conflict of interest and bias on the part of the Council Chair, Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Chair of Council [Pheladi Gwangwa] as well the unlawfulness, irrationality and unreasonableness of its decisions”.

Following the public expression of dissent by council members, chair Ngonyama performed an apparent U-turn.

Ngonyama released a statement on Saturday, 8 October announcing that she would “call for an independent investigation, led by a retired judge”, that would investigate both the UCT Senate and the governance concerns around her and Phakeng’s actions.

“I will ask Council to reconsider its decision of 6 October 2022,” Ngonyama wrote.

She added her ideas for the process to be followed in setting up such an investigation: “The terms of reference should be developed jointly by Council, Senate and our wider multi-stakeholder body, the Institutional Forum.”

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

Ngonyama’s reversal has not mollified the Academics’ Union. In Monday’s lawyers’ letter, Ngonyama’s statement is described as doubly problematic.

“The Council Chair’s letter dated 8 October 2022 underscores and perpetuates the bias and conflict of interest in circumstances where a party under investigation is able to select the process and timing of investigation, the identity of the investigator and instruct the investigator,” the union writes.

“This is contrary to legislation, the common law, the UCT Statute and the UCT’s conflict of interests policy.”

The investigation into the senate championed by Phakeng, Ngonyama and their supporters is on the basis of a supposed procedural breach in the body’s meeting of Friday, 30 September, when a letter was read out on behalf of former senior administrator Lis Lange claiming that Ngonyama had misled the body about the circumstances of her departure from her post.

Lawyers for the Academics’ Union say the senate’s conduct was “within the scope of its powers”, and that the “alleged procedural issues with the manner in which the Senate meeting unfolded are without foundation”.

The union is demanding that the UCT Council hold a special council meeting in the next five days to:

  • Adopt the resolution favoured by dissenting council members, to establish an independent panel headed by a retired judge or similar to investigate governance concerns and Phakeng and Ngonyama’s conduct;
  • Reverse the resolution taken to investigate the senate; and
  • Reaffirm the integrity of the senate.

The lawyers’ letter also demands that the meeting in question “must be convened without the participation or undue influence of the Vice-Chancellor, Council Chair and Deputy Chair [Pheladi Gwangwa]” due to conflict of interests. It states that the UCT Statute, the Higher Education Act, the university’s conflict of interest policy and the common law “cannot be any clearer in this regard”.

If the UCT Council fails to comply with the union’s demands, it reserves the right to institute legal proceedings on an urgent basis.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Daily Maverick has confirmed that a special council meeting is already scheduled for Saturday, 15 October.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Concerned former UCT Convocation presidents call for calm, unified resolution to governance wrangle

Since the news of the current UCT turmoil was broken by Daily Maverick last week, there have been multiple attempts to frame the conflict as fundamentally racial in nature.

A City Press report published on Sunday claimed that the events at the senate were part of an “attempted coup because Phakeng was away” [on sabbatical], and that “the whole saga was about undermining the leadership of a black woman and processes of transformation”.

An article in Sunday Independent took things even further by alleging “a full-on race war between white academics wanting the old university back and black staff demanding transformation”.

A group calling itself the UCT Humanities Students Council, meanwhile, released a statement on Monday referring to the current turmoil as “an attack on black people fundamentally and towards women leadership”.

Referring to Phakeng’s divisive social media presence, the group wrote: “We may not like the views of the Vice-Chancellor on Matric dances or nails, but we as thinking Humanities students have the urgency and need to protect black women leadership.”

It urged students to “look past what is presented to them by pathetic, racist and sensational media houses like Daily Maverick”. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Donald Moore says:

    Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

  • Philip Mirkin says:

    DM as a den of sensationalism and racism? I must be terribly racist and sensation-less to not have noticed 🙂


    Fie on those racists whose fingers point accusingly at respected leaders like Mokonyane, Myeni, Phakeng and other black women whose impeccable characters speak for themselves.

    • David Mark says:

      So if only response to this is it just be because of racists, then you must also believe their impeccably is only a consequence of their black skin? For shame Pillay! They are more than just their race.

  • Garth Kruger says:

    Last Saturday my wife and I couldn’t agree on which movie to watch. My wife is thus also a racist and against transformation.

  • John Smythe says:

    Humanities students? Really? Many are merely a bunch of politicised, self-appointed society policemen and outward-looking people with a lack of direction and making unfounded and one-sided judgements. I remember those from my university days. We saw them as a bunch of spineless clown who naturally gravitated to the easy side of criticising others without objectively assessing their weaknesses first. Unable to perform objective assessments and commentary. Now it’s easier to pull the chip on their shoulders race card. So they should rather go back to putting their heads into their books and become something useful to society.

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    Very sad how myopic and how racialised some people can be. Proud of UCT Academics Union, though, for resolutely trying to fix a mess not of their own making.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    The union’s demand should also include revelations of any NDA’S concluded with departing staff members, the contents/details of these NDA’s, and whether any undue payments were made to convince the departing staff members to sign the NDA’s. .

  • David Mark says:

    “It urged students to look past what is presented to them by pathetic, racist and sensational media houses like Daily Maverick”.

    A comment of pure ignorance and immaturity. How embarrassing.

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