UNIVERSITY GOVERNANCE CRISIS
Inside Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s messy exit from UCT
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.
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