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UCT to suspend Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng

UCT to suspend Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng
University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press / Lucky Nxumalo) | A general view of the UCT campus. (Photo: Gallo Images)

The Council of the University of Cape Town has opted to suspend vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng, amid an ongoing investigation into UCT governance and additional complaints against Phakeng.

UCT Vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng will be suspended by the university Council pending disciplinary action.

Daily Maverick understands that the extraordinary decision was taken by the Council after the body consulted with two of South Africa’s leading experts on labour law – who confirmed that the university would have a prima facie case of misconduct against Phakeng.

Following this consultation, Phakeng was given the option of stepping down quietly with a pay-out. Daily Maverick understands that negotiation fell apart however with Phakeng withdrawing from the talks.

Suspension is the culmination of months of tension

Phakeng’s suspension comes after almost five months of growing conflict – following an explosive meeting of the UCT Senate in late September 2022, with a Daily Maverick expose into the campus governance crisis being published a few days later.

Read on Daily Maverick: Dark days: Accusations of capture and governance instability rock UCT

Dark days: Accusations of capture and governance instability rock UCT

The Daily Maverick investigation, conducted over six months last year, revealed a culture of secrecy and intimidation taking root at the university under the leadership of VC Phakeng and UCT Council Chair Babalwa Ngonyama – who have since fallen out.

Amid a string of departures from senior administrative staff, the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) – reportedly very uncommon for universities – appeared to have become standard practice at UCT.

At the UCT Senate meeting on 30 September 2022, one of these departures took centre stage. A letter from former deputy vice-chancellor Lis Lange was read out, in which Lange contradicted the account of her exit given to the Senate and wrote that she had effectively been forced out of her position at Phakeng’s behest.

In combination, the Senate meeting and the Daily Maverick reporting provided a challenge too substantial to be ignored – coming, as they did, on the back of a public complaint against Phakeng made by former UCT ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa in 2020.

Makamandela-Mguqulwa reported that 37 individuals had approached her with bullying concerns about Phakeng, to which the ombud added her own voice.

Divisions in UCT Council delay process

After the allegations against Phakeng and Ngonyama were made public, pressure mounted – including from the UCT Academics’ Union – against the UCT Council to take action.

But a deeply divided Council could not reach consensus after a series of acrimonious and shambolic meetings, at which Phakeng and Ngonyama themselves initially refused to recuse themselves from votes considering an investigation into their own conduct.

It was only in February 2023 that the Council was able to confirm the launch of an investigation into the UCT governance concerns, in the form of a four-member panel chaired by retired judge Lex Mpati.

That investigation, which is ongoing, is tasked with matters including investigating the circumstances around Lis Lange’s departure and all issues related to executive relationships and executive departures.

Daily Maverick understands that the reason why it was considered necessary to suspend Phakeng despite the fact that the investigation has not completed its work is because nine additional complaints were brought against the VC since the investigation was agreed upon.

Those complaints include the fact that there have been two further resignations of top members of the UCT leadership team – Registrar Royston Pillay and COO Reno Morar, together with the loss of former HR Head Miriam Hoosain to Stellenbosch – and additional charges related to Phakeng’s social media activity over the last few months.

A particularly controversial tweet posted by Phakeng on January 3, 2023 saw Phakeng lying in grass apparently about to fire an assault rifle.

Although Phakeng’s social media conduct had long been a concern, it was apparently felt to be additionally disturbing that she appeared to have doubled down on posting controversial material since the allegations against her surfaced.

Daily Maverick understands that the decision to suspend Phakeng was taken near unanimously by the UCT Council, with only a few members abstaining or voting against it. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bill Gild says:

    It’s about time!

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    I see on Times Live that this suspension has been categoricaly denied by spokesperson Elijah Moholola.
    It smacks EXACTLY of the Spurs story breaking here, then being denied feverishly all over, only for the lies of denial to be exposed a little later. Again.

  • jobstbod says:

    Another tragedy Have we not seen this quite often before Especially at institutions of higher learning A competent and academically highly regarded person striving for a management post One step too far Power starts overwhelming the rational senses and creating an ego which subverts rational thinking and interpersonal interactions The governing bodies of universities must be far cleverer in their recruitment of senior management They must ensure that the Uni statutes provide for clear lines of authority and accountability of especially VCs . The Ombudsman should be able to operate independently and have the necessary powers to investigate any person or body of the university community, without fear or favour.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    The basic education has been a f-up for years. It appears that some of the tertiary institutions are following suit.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    The most disconcerting question (as an ’81 alumnus): how in heaven’s name was she selected? She has done – continues to do – irreparable damage to a once-hallowed institution. Shades of South Africa. The dalliance with criminal Russia leaves South Africans (once the proud Rainbow Nation filled with hope) with that shameful feeling of the Apartheid years. So it is with UCT. One keeps mum about these associations.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Where “somewhere in Africa” is it legal to be in possession of an automatic weapon?

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    I really don’t like the colour lipstick she wears…. No further comments necessary lol!

  • 1957.tonycole says:

    We must not forget how she managed to get into office. She waged a vicious political campaign to ensue her appointment. I stopped funding after she endorsed the BLM style attacks on academic freedom. Our universities must be open to free debate and encourage vigorous open debate. Sadly she was destructive to this principle. Fear mongering is just unacceptable. She must GO!!

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    I can recommend that she employs Dali to her ‘defence’ ! Apparently he works for ‘peanuts’ ?

  • virginia crawford says:

    I suppose she’ll be on full pay.

  • Maite Rabyanyana says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but what is wrong with the “somewhere in Africa” pose? Is it a real machine gun, and is it illegal to pose in a picture with it? Or is it against the VC’s codes?

  • virginia crawford says:

    Scrap the NDA and let’s hear why people left. The machine gun pic – is that gun legal and what sort of example is that for students? If that was a white person with that gun, I’d think survivalist white trash – how to interpret this weird image? Serious intellectual wouldn’t spring to mind.

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