South Africa

GOVERNANCE CRISIS

UCT to launch probe into conduct of vice-chancellor and chairperson after gruelling council meeting

UCT to launch probe into conduct of vice-chancellor and chairperson after gruelling council meeting
From left: Council chairperson, University of Cape Town, Babalwa Ngonyama. (Photo: UCT News) | University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Esa Alexander) | Gallo Images

An independent panel chaired by a retired judge will investigate governance concerns at UCT around vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng and chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama. This was the outcome of a bruising UCT council meeting at the weekend, and follows a fortnight of turmoil.

It took more than six hours for a meeting of the UCT council on Saturday, 15 October, to decide on the way forward after two weeks of turbulence amid the university’s current governance crisis.

But a vote of 17 to 7 ultimately carried the day. An independent panel will be established by the UCT council to probe the conduct of vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng and council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama, as well as other issues related to working relations in UCT’s senior leadership team.

The panel will consist of five independent individuals and be chaired by a retired judge. Daily Maverick is reliably informed that nominations to the panel will be put forward by the council, with a small group of council members tasked with drawing up a list of proposed panellists and the relevant judge. The full council will approve the final panel.

A statement published by deputy chairperson of the council Pheladi Gwangwa after the meeting contains no mention of the panel being chaired by a retired judge. Gwangwa supported an alternative resolution in which a judge did not feature, but the resolution for which the majority of council members voted was clear that such a judge will chair the panel.

The omission of this crucial detail from Gwangwa’s summary of decisions taken is a reflection of the level of contestation in the meeting itself, in which Gwangwa herself became a central site of conflict when she refused to recuse herself from deliberations and the vote.


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Fraught with conflict

Daily Maverick understands that debate over Gwangwa’s recusal took up almost four hours of the meeting.

The argument for Gwangwa needing to recuse herself was premised on the fact that she chairs the university’s human resources (HR) committee, and some of the central allegations to be investigated by the panel — revolving around the departures of senior administrators — are HR related.

Fourteen dissenting council members, including UCT’s Dean of Law, Danwood Chirwa, had earlier released a statement objecting to Gwangwa’s conflict of interest in proceedings, and terming her a “central protagonist” in the issues to be probed by the panel.

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

A lawyer’s letter sent to the UCT council by the UCT Academics’ Union last week also demanded the recusal of Gwangwa — together with the vice-chancellor and chairperson — from the discussion on legal grounds.

Phakeng and Ngonyama agreed to recuse themselves accordingly, but Daily Maverick was informed by insiders that Gwangwa dismissed the legal opinions on the matter and refused to back down. Against the objection of 17 council members, Gwangwa continued to chair the meeting and vote on all resolutions.

Although the balance of power in the council had shifted over the past week to support an investigation into Phakeng and Ngonyama’s conduct, Daily Maverick understands there was still considerable pushback from a minority of council members. This diminished faction continued to press for an investigation of the UCT senate, on the inaccurate grounds that the body did not act procedurally in raising governance concerns at its most recent meeting.

The faction also wanted investigations into racism and misogyny, and pushed for the involvement of a wider UCT body called the Institutional Forum, which includes members elected by the Students’ Representative Council.

These ideas were ultimately rejected by the council majority.

Past UCT execs to be freed from NDAs

Daily Maverick understands that the specific process to be followed by the panel, as well as the investigation’s terms of reference, have yet to be determined. But matters will need to proceed quickly, since the panel is required to submit a detailed report to the council by 31 December 2022.

The panel is tasked with investigating:

  • Whether vice-chancellor Phakeng and chairperson Ngonyama misled UCT’s governing bodies regarding the departure of former deputy vice-chancellor Lis Lange; and
  • Issues relating to working relationships in the university’s senior leadership team, and the reasons for multiple recent resignations.

Importantly, the panel is authorised to speak to departed former executives even if they have signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

The increasing use of NDAs at the university was one of the central issues exposed by Daily Maverick’s investigation into governance issues at UCT. The article’s publication a fortnight ago, on the back of a senate meeting raising similar matters, has led to an outpouring of concern.

Dark days: Accusations of capture and governance instability rock UCT

The report, which the investigating panel is to present to the council by 31 December 2022, must reach specific conclusions and recommend specific actions to be taken.

Phakeng defiant on social media

In a video posted to Twitter on Sunday, 16 October, after the outcome of the previous day’s council meeting, Phakeng declared herself happy to cooperate fully with the investigation — but said there were “two things” that concern her.

“The allegations keep shifting,” Phakeng claimed, and added that she was “keen to know who will be drafting the terms of reference” for the panel, since “no-one should ever be a jury or judge in their own case”.

This sentiment marks something of a departure for Phakeng, who previously refused to recuse herself from voting on the prospect of an investigation into her own conduct.

The vice-chancellor, who returned to Cape Town last week after cutting short her European sabbatical, has been retweeting expressions of support over the last fortnight under the hashtag #HandsOffPhakeng.

Daily Maverick understands that the subject of Phakeng’s recent tweeting was raised with concern at a meeting between the VC and academic deans late last week.

Among the posts retweeted by Phakeng recently was a claim that the governance concerns at UCT are being pushed by “white supremacists”.

In another tweet, Phakeng wrote that the pressure she had been under in 2020 had meant that she “almost went the Mayosi route”; a reference to the suicide of the former UCT Dean of Health Sciences Bongani Mayosi in 2018.

Mayosi’s family wrote to Phakeng this weekend to express their anger with her glib reference, accusing the vice-chancellor of exploiting their tragedy for “narcissistic reasons”.

The Mayosi family further accused Phakeng of “doing this for years”, terming her someone who possesses “an inflated sense of importance and intelligence, competence, education, knowledge and so on” but displays “a total lack of empathy, compassion and … emotional intelligence”.

News24 reported that UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola claimed that the tweet in question was not actually posted by Phakeng, although it was posted on her account. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Another institution of the people bites the dust – well done ANC! Next stop stellenbosch.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Mayosi’s family wrote to Phakeng this weekend to express their anger with her glib reference, accusing the vice-chancellor of exploiting their tragedy for “narcissistic reasons”.

    Enough said.

  • Paul Zille says:

    Very revealing of the stalinism that lurks behind the UCT administration’s transformation agenda.

    • Hugh Tyrrell says:

      Narcissism, as does pride, comes before a fall. The Mayosi family’s analysis of Phakeng’s problem is right on the button. Would be interesting to have the UCT Psychology Department track evidence of her narcissism and how that has affected her leadership style.

  • - Matt says:

    My frustration is as a fee-paying parent of UCT attendees. I have been so disappointed by how slow and at time backward UCT’s approach to dealing with the Covid virus have been. Trailing other universities, zero leadership, and the impact for students negative… while at the same time grabbing inflated full fees as if the sub-standard online offering of the past 2.5 years equated to the full face to face offering, complete with Jammie stairs and the opportunity to meet both people in your lectures and new people.

    And it now becomes clear. The house is divided against itself, and there is no creativity or bold decision making possible when you are constantly checking who is standing behind you to stab you in the back.

    Please UCT, do the right thing. Get rid of the morons and let’s focus again on the students – they are the reason you are there.

  • Mervyn Bennun says:

    I am an alumnus of UCT and in exile I have been a non-professorial member of the Senate for three elected terms at a British university. There were certainly heated disagreements and passionate words said, but they were on academic policy issues and not on personalities. The tragedy here is that there now appears to be a clash of personalities when there are desperately important matters of policy to be dealt with in the context of a grave situation in South African education generally. One of the damaging factors here seems to be the resort to social media. I urge an end to this practice and even the closing of twitter accounts. Academic life is attractive in the collegiality of strong minds and the freedom of thought and scholarship that they engage in. This readily resonates in a university Senate, and this is the proper setting for such energy. South Africa is a troubled country, and this personality-based anger is a diversion and a distraction from the real task of one of the world’s finest universities.

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      In Exile from where? Close down twitter accounts and freedom of speech. I think not. I don’t do twitter, but let all idiots have freedom & democratic right to express themselves. After all thats how South Africa became a free mess.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    “Among the posts retweeted by Phakeng recently was a claim that the governance concerns at UCT are being pushed by “white supremacists”. OK. That didn’t take long, did it?

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