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Fact-Checked: UCT Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s misleading interview with JJ Tabane

Fact-Checked: UCT Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s misleading interview with JJ Tabane

Outgoing University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng used some of her final hours in her position to sit down for an extraordinary interview on JJ Tabane’s ‘Power to Truth’ show on eNCA on Wednesday evening. Here we fact-check Phakeng’s claims – including that Daily Maverick is guilty of ‘very unethical’ conduct.

In an astonishing live TV interview on Wednesday night, outgoing UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng lashed out at the UCT Council just days after inking a departure agreement which sees her walk away from the university with a settlement worth over R12-million.

Daily Maverick understands from legal sources that Phakeng’s comments may have put her financial agreement in jeopardy – and that it is highly likely that Phakeng’s own lawyers would have warned her of this possibility in advance of her interview with JJ Tabane on the eNCA show ‘Power to Truth’.

But the interview demonstrated the truth in reports that Phakeng is “hell-bent” on being exonerated from allegations of wrongdoing at UCT – apparently even at the potential expense of millions of rand.

In the hour-long interview, Phakeng repeatedly painted herself as the victim of a “cabal”, acting in concert with the media, which was opposed to her transformation agenda and the fact that she was a “change-maker” at the institution.

Towards the end of the interview, Tabane seemed to lose control of the conversation – as an increasingly irate Phakeng responded to reported criticism by calling the host a “journalistic buffoon” and asking: “Do you know how many people said I should talk to [ journalist] Annika Larsen instead, because you are a joke?”

Here follows a fact-check of some of Phakeng’s claims:

PHAKENG CLAIM: The UCT Senate is majority ‘old white men’ and approved her second term by 78%.

It is correct that the UCT Senate voted to approve Phakeng’s second term, which began in late 2022, by 78%.

Crucially, however, it has since been suggested that Senate made the decision based on incomplete information, given the allegation that Phakeng and UCT Council chair Babalwa Ngonyama misled Senate regarding the departure of former deputy vice-chancellor Lis Lange.

Dark days: Accusations of capture and governance instability rock UCT

Indeed, a significant aspect of the criticism against Phakeng is that she and Ngonyama may have repeatedly colluded to withhold information from the UCT Senate and the UCT Council, and prevent the discussion thereof.

A senior source told Daily Maverick last week that one of the questions UCT’s independent panel would be advised to consider would be the circumstances under which Senate approved Phakeng’s second term.

With regard to the demographics of the Senate, UCT deputy vice-chancellor Elelwani Ramugondo was quoted in October 2022 as saying that the Senate was 57% white; of the 57%, the majority are men, of unknown ages.

Phakeng previously told the Times Higher Education Supplement, in December 2021, that she “changed the [Senate] rules so that each department could nominate two members who were not full professors and were from a marginalised group”, in order to adjust the demographics of the UCT Senate.

This was untrue. A member of the UCT Senate told Daily Maverick that the Senate began work around 15 years ago – a decade before Phakeng’s term in office – on developing a pipeline of new Senate members to address the issue. A Senate task team chaired by former deputy vice-chancellor in charge of transformation Loretta Feris – one of the members of the executive who left under Phakeng – began work on this specific proposal in 2017, with the recommendation passed by Senate in 2019.

PHAKENG CLAIM: When Phakeng took office in mid-2018, UCT was ‘in tatters … was in complete disarray’.

Phakeng certainly took on the vice-chancellor job at UCT during a period when the position looked unenviable, following three years of high-profile student protests and reports of institutional divisions.

As Daily Maverick wrote at the time: “As well as continuing to manage the existing tensions over transformation and institutional culture, Phakeng dons the VC’s mantle in a period of unprecedented funding uncertainty for South African universities, with then-president Jacob Zuma’s announcement of fee-free higher education for poor households in late 2017 having raised still unanswered questions about how the resulting funding gap will be met”.

Opinions will differ as to whether her assessment of the state of UCT in 2018 was fair or over-harsh.

A source familiar with UCT’s internal workings at the time told Daily Maverick that Phakeng’s comments were “simply not true – UCT was stable, there was a process in place to address institutional inclusion, and the era of protest had passed”.

PHAKENG CLAIM: Although Phakeng was named as the subject of 37 bullying complaints in a 2019 report by UCT Ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, all previous Ombud reports prior to Phakeng’s tenure as VC also dealt with bullying, but without naming any bullies.

It is true that there were many previous bullying complaints, another UCT insider told Daily Maverick, but for a single member of the UCT executive to attract so many charges was “unheard of”.

PHAKENG CLAIM: Daily Maverick has been ‘very unethical’ in its reporting on UCT.

Daily Maverick carried an article exposing UCT’s governance crisis under Phakeng in October 2022 which was the culmination of months of investigation, interviews and research, after being contacted by multiple whistle-blowers concerned about what was happening at the university.

Questions were put to UCT ahead of publication and responses to key claims recorded, as is required by the Press Code. Daily Maverick further granted UCT the publication space for a full right of reply to the investigation.

Since then, Daily Maverick has continued to publish updates on events at UCT based on leaked documents and information from confidential sources – as journalists do. This has certainly been in the public interest, given the sparse and sometimes misleading information emanating from UCT’s official channels over this period.

Beyond this, UCT is a partially publicly funded institution – and as such, developments pertaining to its governance or finances are in the fundamental public interest.

PHAKENG CLAIM: Daily Maverick has carried this reporting because Maverick Citizen managing editor Anso Thom is the life partner of UCT’s suspended communications and marketing executive director Gerda Kruger, a fact which was concealed.

To repeat: Daily Maverick was contacted by multiple whistle-blowers concerned by events at UCT over a period of many months in 2021 and 2022. Kruger was not one of them, and did not serve as a source for any of Daily Maverick’s reports.

Daily Maverick also listed all staff members or paid contributors with any links to UCT whatsoever on every initial report on the UCT governance issue, as follows:

Disclosure: In the interests of transparency, Daily Maverick here lists staff members and paid contributors with links to UCT. None of the people listed below was quoted in, or used as sources for, this story:

    • Maverick Citizen Editor Mark Heywood is an adjunct professor at UCT’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance.
    • Maverick Citizen Managing Editor Anso Thom’s life partner Gerda Kruger is Executive Director at the UCT Department of Communication and Marketing.
    • Daily Maverick paid contributor Pierre de Vos is the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at UCT.
    • Daily Maverick day editor Janet Heard’s sister Vicki Heard is the operations manager for the Centre for Higher Education Development at UCT.

PHAKENG CLAIM: When the negative reporting on UCT began, the Registrar should have written to media houses demanding to know who had leaked them confidential documents and ‘called [them] out…on gaining access to confidential documents’

This would be in contravention of the most basic precepts of press freedom in a democracy.

PHAKENG CLAIM: The independent panel convened to investigate governance concerns (centred on Phakeng and UCT Council Chair Babalwa Ngonyama) consists of ‘four judges’. In her next utterance, Phakeng claimed it was ‘three judges…more than the worst murderer [would get]’

As has been widely reported, the independent panel is chaired by a retired judge – Lex Mpati – and features as panellists fellow retired judge Azhar Cachalia, public sector governance expert Trish Hanekom and Wits transformation head Bernadette Johnson.

PHAKENG CLAIM: Phakeng has no idea on what basis UCT was on the verge of suspending her over the past month, as she was never given a list of the charges against her.

Daily Maverick understands that this is partially true – Phakeng was indeed never informed, in writing, of all the charges against her.

But a source with knowledge of the negotiations between Phakeng and UCT told Daily Maverick that it was “highly disingenuous” of Phakeng to claim she had no idea why she would be suspended, given that she was fully aware of the independent panel’s investigation into her governance and the concerns it was probing.

PHAKENG CLAIM: Phakeng was told the panel investigation would go away if she took a settlement, but she insisted that the investigation continue as she was so certain it would exonerate her. However, she was told this was impossible: ‘No, no, no, the panel is going away; we are removing everything about the panel’.

This is untrue – it has been made clear that the investigation is indeed continuing, albeit in a revised format because in terms of administrative justice, a settlement with Phakeng could not be reached if an investigation focused primarily on Phakeng’s conduct was ongoing. Legally, this was untenable.

PHAKENG CLAIM: From ‘Day One’, she did not have the support of the UCT Council.

“Council gave her the benefit of the doubt to appoint her in the first place despite serious reservations,” an insider told Daily Maverick.

Numerous attempts were made by the UCT Council to assist and support Phakeng, as documents seen by Daily Maverick confirm – including the contracting of leadership coaching for the VC.

Phakeng also could not have received a second term as VC without the support of the UCT Council.

PHAKENG CLAIM: ‘All the black females on the UCT Council’ resigned when the current fracas broke out, because they all supported Phakeng

It should be noted that a very strange way to demonstrate support for Phakeng would be to immediately leave the body responsible for voting on her fate.

Furthermore, Daily Maverick understands that the UCT Council still currently counts black women among its members.

PHAKENG CLAIM: She leaves a UCT that is ‘healthy’

The facts do not support this, given the reputational damage done to the institution and current high levels of turmoil – including an executive accused by UCT’s own Law Dean of colluding in violence with protesting students, and an academic body which earlier this year threatened to embark on its first strike in UCT’s history.

“[Phakeng] leaves a divided UCT, a massive budget deficit, reduced funding from donors, and a denuded leadership,” a senior insider told Daily Maverick.

“The sustainability of the institution was threatened by her lack of prudence and her habit of funding pet projects or benefiting those she wanted to ingratiate. More importantly, she lost the trust of the academic staff, and left the office of the VC in shreds.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Cornelia Jacobs Jacobs says:

    A thumbs-up to JJ Thabane for getting a controversial interviewee to go off-scrip & reveal herself. I will make a point of listing & subscribing to him.

    • Hilary Morris says:

      Funny, my reaction was the exact opposite – this is clearly a woman who should be neither seen nor heard (of and from) again! Particularly after UCT has had two outstanding black vice chancellors. Her only success seems to have been to undo much of the tranformative progress that had been made.

      • Bill Gild says:

        I completely agree with Hilary Morris.
        The time has long passed for covering the antics and malevolence of this of this malignant narcissist. There are more important and adult issues plaguing SA.

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    Quite astonishing: Phakeng seems to be completely oblivious to the facts that she is not only NOT UCT’s first black VC, but not even the first black woman: 25 years ago we had first Mamphela Ramphele, then Njabulo Ndabeni. This interview was just an outing of the narcissism that had become increasingly evident during her tenure,as well as her intemperate nature. Obviously a very badly-judged exercise, which will probably come back to bite her. Just the amount of defamation should be enough to cause UCT Council to rethink some of their generosity.

    • 1957.tonycole says:

      Her narcissm makes Trump look humble. I stopped funding UCT due to her endorsement of overt anti white BLM activities.

    • Gillian Dusterwald says:

      Absolutely. I fail to understand why the fact that 3 out of 4 of the most recent VCs have been black and two of them have been female is not repeated ad nauseum in the press and social media. This is simply not about racism or sexism, but about incompetence and arrogance.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    Normally, financial settlements of the kind Phakeng received have some sort of NDA or agreement not to publicly comment. I assume UCT would have done this and the reporting above states that ” Daily Maverick understands from legal sources that Phakeng’s comments may have put her financial agreement in jeopardy”

    Good. Get rid of the woman and dont pay her what she has extorted.

  • Bill Gild says:

    Appointing Phakeng as VC was the first mistake.
    Extending her tenure in that position was the second.
    Council’s handling of her termination was the third.
    All three are now proving to have been expensive errors.
    Phakeng is, at the very least, a narcissistic individual who was, at the very least, ill-suited to head anything of importance.
    Maybe the time has come to cease giving her “air time”, and allow UCT to attempt to recover its standing as a serious institution of higher learning.

    • Louis Potgieter says:

      There needs to be an article on how this person made it to VC. The article should also try to explain why South Africans are such lousy judges of character.

  • Rob Blake says:

    Phakeng’s next job will be a high-level appointment made by the ANC. Watch this space.

  • Gregory Scott says:

    The comment by Bill Guild is spot on

  • Tim Price says:

    It would be hard to imagine a worse person to lead a world class educational institution than Dr P. The mind boggles at her narcissism.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    The problem is when we look at issues with a racial lens by those who support her and those who are against her in particular in the media. The real issues then get to be under the radar rather than to focus on them not race. This is the unfortunate part of our history that obfuscates issues. The real purpose of the existence of the institution is even forgotten in this racialised discourse. That the university structure have been to find a way to close the chapter so that the institution can focus on its basic mandate of delivering quality higher education and research that must serve the public. The council must be commended and they ought to have signed an agreement that prevents her from holding interviews that would keep the issue in the public discourse when it is closed. One is neither for or against her but the issues were going to affect the quality, credibility and integrity of the qualifications of the institution. We will keep an eye on the university as it navigates its future. For those who have turned the issues at university a racial issue, shame on you.

  • John Smythe says:

    And yet UCT has risen into the top 250 best universities in the world and best in Africa according to the QS World University Rankings. So, I wouldn’t quite refer to it as leaving the university in “high levels of turmoil”. You’ve got to list the positives if you’re to give a balanced view. That’s why I subscribe to DM.

  • Anne Fischer says:

    The last paragraph says it all – sounds just like the governing party – is she a cadre, perhaps?

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