Defend Truth


UCT Academics’ Union fires more legal shots over ‘defining moment’ in the university’s history

UCT Academics’ Union fires more legal shots over ‘defining moment’ in the university’s history
The University of Cape Town. (Photo: Peter Heeger / Gallo Images)

The UCT Academics’ Union has, for the second time in a month, accused the university’s Council of unlawful and unprocedural conduct in a meeting, due to conflicts of interest. In a hard-hitting lawyer’s letter, the union states that ‘the reputation and character of the university are at stake’.

“This represents a defining moment in the history of UCT. It must be handled with utmost rigour, conscientiousness and objectivity,” reads a letter from the law firm Webber Wentzel, sent on behalf of the UCT Academics’ Union to the UCT Council on Monday.

The “moment” referred to in the legal letter is the UCT governance crisis, first brought to public attention in early October. Allegations of misconduct, which focused on UCT’s vice-chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, and the chair of the UCT Council, Babalwa Ngonyama, are now set to be probed by an independent panel chaired by a retired judge — but the UCT Academics’ Union still has some serious concerns.

Foremost is the fact that the most recent council meetings discussing the governance issues have been chaired by the body’s deputy, Pheladi Gwangwa.

Gwangwa, a lawyer by training, is a director of the Pretoria-based law firm MM Chueu Inc. She was the station manager of Johannesburg talk radio station 702 between 2005 and 2016.

As reported by Daily Maverick after the council’s 15 October meeting, Gwangwa’s refusal to recuse herself from chairing the gathering became the subject of a fiery debate which occupied more than half of the meeting’s six-hour duration.  

Now, the UCT Academics’ Union has said that Gwangwa’s conduct “requires immediate attention”.

A number of the issues central to the current governance crisis are related to human resources — such as the circumstances around the departure of senior administrator Lis Lange and the departures of other members of the university leadership team.

“[Gwangwa] is obviously conflicted, given that [she] has, and continues to hold, the position of Chairperson of UCT’s Human Resources Committee, since 1 July 2020,” the union wrote in its Monday letter.

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

“[Gwangwa] is also a member of the university’s Remunerations Committee (‘RemCom’), which has responsibility for, inter alia, determining the remuneration packages (including salaries, bonuses and benefits in kind) of individual executive staff of UCT, including that of vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors, [and] for approving severance packages for all staff where the severance package would be in excess of the formula approved by council.”

Under these circumstances, the union wrote, Gwangwa was “integrally involved” in recent administrator departures, and her failure to recuse herself from meetings discussing these matters “breaches the Higher Education Act, the UCT Conflict of Interests Policy, and the UCT Statute”.

Gwangwa’s post-meeting memo to the UCT community regarding the council decisions taken on 15 October also omitted certain key details, such as the fact that the independent panel looking into the governance issues will be chaired by a retired judge.

The UCT Academics’ Union has accused her of having “misrepresented the outcome” of the meeting by omitting this detail.

Also absent from Gwangwa’s post-meeting report: the fact that “the target of the investigation is potential misconduct on the part of the vice-chancellor and the chair of council”, wrote the union, and the fact that Gwangwa “refused to recuse herself from the vote despite being requested by her colleagues to do so”.

The union is demanding that the UCT Council takes “immediate disciplinary steps” against Gwangwa and ensures that she is blocked from any further participation in matters relating to the current crisis.

The union notes with concern that it has been informed that Gwangwa “is apparently attempting to have a significant say in choosing the five members of the independent investigative panel and to determine other arrangements in this regard, in circumstances where she has and is reasonably perceived to have a vested interest in the outcome”.

Although the decision to establish an independent panel was hailed by many as an overdue victory for good governance, the investigation’s terms of reference are still unclear.

Daily Maverick understands that contestation over the members of the panel, as well as the process to be followed, is already heated.

The UCT Academics’ Union stated in its Monday letter that in order for the probity of such an inquiry to be beyond reproach, the entire council should be involved in nominating panel members, and a public statement should be published clarifying the process to be followed.

This is the second lawyer’s letter to be sent by the union to the council in recent weeks, demanding an end to illegal and unprocedural actions. 

“The allegations against the vice-chancellor and the chair of council are of the most serious kind. The reputation and character of the university are at stake,” the union concludes.

“[The UCT Academics’ Union] and the hundreds of faculty members whom it represents have an abiding interest to ensure that the process followed in this matter is meticulous and discovers the truth, and that the appropriate consequences flow from the outcome of truth-seeking.”

The letter continues: “[The union] is committed to ensuring that good governance, proper process and accountability prevail, and will not hesitate to exercise its legal rights as necessary to ensure compliance and that these critical issues are not treated superficially or swept under the rug.”

The union is demanding a response from the council by 28 October. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Christopher Bedford says:

    Once one of the foremost repositories of excellence on the continent, reduced to internecine squabbling and petty political BS? You’re disgusting. You’re giving the US’ “retrumplicans” a good run for their money in the “power at all costs, and to hell with the greater good” stakes. I suppose we can’t really blame them, after 30 years of watching ANC cadre deployment translated into self-importance, where you put the big black Mercedes, Rolex, and case of Chivas Regal above getting the job done.

  • Bill Gild says:

    The circus continues, but this circus, unlike normal circuses, has nothing to do with entertainment. It has to do with attempting to restore UCT’s previously good name and reputation. So far, the signals are not encouraging.

  • Andrew W says:

    Certainly Miss Gwangwa seems conflicted and should recuse herself (Hint – ask LizTruss for a ‘how-to’ guide). Perhaps DM could put it to her that she appears conflicted and ask for her comment as to why she doesn’t believe this to be the case? Accountability must start somewhere, even if its only to explain the unexplainable….

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.