South Africa

UNIVERSITY GOVERNANCE CRISIS

Inside Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s messy exit from UCT

Inside Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s messy exit from UCT
Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng was one of the candidates that applied for the position of the university's vice-chancellor position. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Esa Alexander)

At the eleventh hour, University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng jumped before she was pushed — avoiding suspension by the UCT Council by coming to an agreement on a lucrative early retirement package.

University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng will cease to perform her duties on 3 March 2023.

As first reported by News24 on Tuesday evening, an eleventh-hour termination agreement was reached between Phakeng and the UCT Council which saw Phakeng avoid the suspension the council had previously resolved on, amid the breakdown of negotiations between the parties.

The termination agreement states: “Prof Phakeng will take early retirement and cease to occupy the position of Vice-Chancellor of the university with effect 03 March 2023 and her Associate Professorship [in the UCT Education Department] will terminate with effect from 28 February 2024.”

The period remaining on her academic contract, however, will be taken up by a 12-month sabbatical. As such, Phakeng’s time at UCT will in effect end in less than a fortnight.

Generous pay package and benefits

Phakeng will receive a 12-month payout of her annual salary of R4,184,616, in addition to an “early retirement lump sum” of R8,369,232.

This amounts to a total payment package of R12,553,848.

Phakeng will also receive reduced UCT tuition for her dependants for life and post-retirement medical aid for life.

In signing the settlement, Phakeng is waiving her right to further litigation of any kind against UCT.

It is an abrupt end to Phakeng’s tumultuous time at the helm at UCT. But recent events appear to have made the vice-chancellor’s continued leadership untenable, including an extraordinary statement by UCT Law Dean Danwood Chirwa last week, in effect accusing Phakeng and the rest of the university executive of having colluded with protesting students to knowingly expose the campus to violence.   

Inside the negotiations leading up to Phakeng’s exit

As reported by Daily Maverick last week, the UCT Council resolved earlier this month that if a settlement agreement could not be reached with Phakeng, she would be suspended.

With negotiations having seemingly reached an impasse, that suspension looked imminent. The major sticking points, Daily Maverick understands, were the amount that Phakeng was asking to be paid out, and her desire to remain in the official UCT vice-chancellor’s residence, Glenara, beyond the termination of her employment.

Lawyers for UCT and for Phakeng were ultimately able to find each other over the weekend, but the UCT Council still needed to ratify the settlement.

Daily Maverick understands that at Tuesday evening’s four-hour Council meeting, there were objections raised by a number of Council members that Phakeng’s severance package was too generous, and that it allowed her to walk away from UCT without taking accountability for the governance crisis that has erupted on her watch.

Dark days: Accusations of capture and governance instability rock UCT

Part of the agreement is that Phakeng’s early retirement will be announced via a statement from the university which has to be approved by both parties — and which by definition is bound to be neutral.

There were objections from some on the Council that Phakeng could essentially walk away from UCT reputationally intact, despite the fact that the Council had already received top legal opinion to the effect that there was a prima facie case of misconduct which could be brought against her.


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The independent investigation will continue

Another challenge was the fact that an independent panel chaired by retired Judge Lex Mpati has already begun an investigation into executive conduct at UCT with a clear focus on Phakeng and the chair of the UCT Council, Babalwa Ngonyama.

This posed practical and legal challenges. 

As a source close to the discussions explained to Daily Maverick: “If the panel exonerates her, what would it mean for administrative justice that UCT has already let her go? And if the panel finds her guilty, why did UCT pay her out almost R13-million?”

As such, it was considered essential that the ambit of the independent investigation must change. Daily Maverick understands that conversations between the panel and the UCT Council are ongoing, but the idea is for the panel to now look into UCT’s governance issues more broadly.

Another source told Daily Maverick that this did not mean that the investigation will now turn a blind eye to issues involving Phakeng:

“How did she get appointed for a second term? What happened to the cases of bullying [reported by the former UCT ombud]? What was the role of the chair? All of that is still on the table.”

Easier to let Phakeng go than face a drawn-out battle

Daily Maverick understands that it was strenuously argued by the UCT Council’s legal counsel that it was in UCT’s best interests to reach a settlement agreement with Phakeng.

It was pointed out that the independent investigation could take months to conclude, and even if the panel’s final report is damning towards Phakeng, the VC could take it on legal review.

Weighing up the possible damage that could be done to UCT over such a long period, a source said, the severance payout could turn out to be “cheap at the price”.

A number of other factors also helped weigh the scales in favour of a settlement agreement.

Daily Maverick understands that there was significant pressure applied by major UCT donors for matters with Phakeng to be wrapped up as swiftly and diplomatically as possible. In addition, a number of key members of the UCT executive who were negotiating exit packages under Phakeng are believed to have agreed to stay on if the VC departs.    

Phakeng’s replacement still unclear

The question of who will take over from Phakeng at the helm of Africa’s top university, even in an acting capacity, is likely to be a fraught issue.

There is no automatic succession plan in the event of the vice-chancellor’s early retirement, and Daily Maverick understands that at least one potential candidate is already the subject of contestation within the UCT Council.

Phakeng’s successor will inherit the mantle at a decidedly troubled time, with the campus having already faced its first academic strike last month, still dealing with SRC-led protests over fee-related student exclusion, and trying to plug the gaps from a steady exodus of experienced administrators during Phakeng’s tenure. 

On Wednesday evening, Phakeng tweeted a message of thanks to her supporters. “I just wanted to tell you that I am fine, and happy,” Phakeng said in a video message. 

She proceeded to thank clothing label Udarkie for the T-shirt she was wearing, saying: “I’ve never had a better quality T-shirt.” 

Phakeng also encouraged her followers to consult her Instagram to find out how to buy the earrings she was wearing in her video. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bill Gild says:

    The close to immediate loss of the VC of a once fine university, following the retirement of her immediate predecessor, the weak and confused Vice-Chancellar, Max Price, sets UCT at a dire crossroad. Will the institution continue to fall, or might there arise (against all odds) a new UCT – one that resurrects the excellent institution that in its day spawned four Nobel laureates, graduates in all fields who were snapped up by finest universities in the first world, and made names for themselves in commerce and the arts within South Africa.
    Time will tell, but the damage wrought by Max Price, Council, and most recently the inappropriate and
    and unfit-for purpose Phakeng, will not easily be reversed, if at all.
    UCT has not yet reached the very bottom of the abyss, but is perilously close, and should that occur, the implications for the country as a whole will be dire.

  • Gerrie Pretorius says:

    How many deserving students could have completed their studies with R12,5m? It is so easy to ‘give away’ that amount of money if you haven’t worked for it! 99% of South Africans will in their entire lifetime of honest work never earn this amount (With even more perks thown in for life!?). This is just another typical example of anc cadre deployment and AA destroying a once acclaimed institution, while spitting in the face of ‘their own’ suffering in total poverty and being trampled on ‘for equality’

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Disgusting beyond belief! Rewarding a wayward and sinister wrecking ball of a clearly not fit for purpose individual for all the harm, pain and damage caused. Such is the sorry state of matters in SA where anything goes. We reward the useless and wayward by either suspending them on full pay for years or we pay them out huge sums of unwarranted money to get rid it them!

  • Jon Quirk says:

    NDA’s are the bane of modern life and allow too many scumbags to walk away from the war-zone they have created, scott-free. Whether this is applicable in this situation, I leave it for readers to judge, but why is it so many sleazy situations seem to centre around the name Max Price?

    He seems to have sacrificed every moral fibre he may once have had, on his interpretation of the altar of PC-correctness and genuflection to his perceived political masters

  • Prof Bill Richards - retired Richards says:

    R12 million for being incompetent when she should have been sacked! I look back on my career and it makes me very angry to see such large sums of public money squandered – Prof Bill Richards, retired

  • Bruce Young says:

    The last two paragraphs are extremely revealing about her character. She is using this opportunity to try to peddle bling earrings she is presumably receiving a commission on. Wow!

    She chooses to make this part of her parting narrative. What does one make of this?

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Instead of getting punished for her misdemeanour she gets REWARDED.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    Rewarding a toxic bully suggests that bullying worked right to the end. As for earring advice.. oh pleeeze! Let’s hope UCT learns from this nasty expensive lesson and puts some protective measures in place before more grubby grabbers tear it down.

  • Zintle Msomi says:

    So this disgruntled employee left UCT for Stelli. Why not UWC perhaps? Away,you can have and enjoy your white privilege for as long as it lasts. The new generation of black,educated,hardworking South Africans is coming. We’re no longer phased,afraid of fooled by such nonsense as during the days of apartheid. We know we have a voice and power and we’re gonna use it. You can go with your couple of thousand of rands and sponsor some university in Europe. That’ll be great.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    This is not a race debate Khutalo.

  • Karl Nepgen says:

    Pathetic performances, both from the individual parasite, and the once great institution management.

  • Richard Bryant says:

    In the words of Andre de Ruyter, it’s a matter of everyone getting their chance to eat.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Seems to be a popular business model in SA. Being useless has a cost (I almost said value)!

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Sobekwa’s comments are precisely what is wrong with the masses of this country. It all boils down to racism and taking it personally. This UCT matter has nothing to do with racism but all to do with an incompetent, not fit for purpose and sinister individual, who has caused huge damage and is being rewarded for it as well. I couldn’t give a damn what colour this woman is or her replacement – black, white, pink or green. All we want is someone competent, fit for purpose and that can add value. Wake up Sobekwa, get past your racism!!

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    Shame on the UCT council! They have every incentive to do as they please since their only future is money. An absolute disgrace and another good example the mentality that propels SA’s slide into dysfunction.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Seems to me that Khuthala Sobekwa should ask for their money back, wherever it was that they were allegedly educated.

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    Oh, great: yet another senior UCT person accused of serious wrongdoing, and then bought off – paid to go away. Second in my experience, but I am sure there are more. It leaves a rather bitter taste to yet again see someone walk away with a handsome financial package, so that the University doesn’t have to get down and dirty and actually DEAL with the problem.
    The fact is that Senate was effectively misled by the Chair of Council in rushing through Phakeng’s reappointment – in a very bizarre praise singer-like performance – when we thought she was just testing the level of support she could expect for a formal rerun. The rather obscene hurry may have had to do with the fact that the Lis Lange affair had not yet been made public, and the vote may not have gone her way if it had. Unsavoury all around.
    Oh, and @gerrie: Phakeng has never shown any alignment with the ANC, so was never deployed. She is her own circus.

  • Bill Gild says:

    Phakeng’s departure was indeed “messy”.

    “Messy” because she ought not to have been headhunted at the getgo; because there was abundant evidence almost from the beginning of her first term of her inappropriateness to hold any kind of high office; because it took several courageous individuals (within and without Council) finally to persuade Council to act; and finally, because it took so very long to get rid of her.

  • Ryckard Blake says:

    That’s one down, but what about her sponsor and protector Ngonyama?
    How long is she allowed to continue occupying the VC’s residence?
    Did anyone calculate the Present Value of all the “for life” entitlements? She should surely not trade them for a cash settlement of anything less than another R10 million.
    What does Max Price have to say about the legacy he left?

  • Tony Reilly says:

    Unfortunately, the inexorable slide into mediocrity has begun and cannot be reversed…….the fate of all universities in South Africa.

  • virginia crawford says:

    R12m for doing a very bad job? I suggest the students go and protest outside her house: she has taken money that could have been spent on what matters – education.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    This is an example of what Dali (during his stint at the SABC learnt many years ago) how to screw an organisation and the people at large … and get away with it. As for that Nobel prize one respondent referred to … it may yet be awarded to Dali (and his ilk) for making a mockery of our judicial system ! Even though the committee there would have to invent a new category !

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    In South Africa, mediocrity/failure gets rewarded more often than success.

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