South Africa

UNIVERSITY GOVERNANCE CRISIS

Behind UCT Council chair Babalwa Ngonyama’s resignation

Behind UCT Council chair Babalwa Ngonyama’s resignation
Former University of Cape Town (UCT) Council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama. (Photo: Supplied)

UCT Council Chair Babalwa Ngonyama announced in an email on Monday that she is resigning from her role, citing her concerns about a panel tasked by the council with investigating governance issues at the university. The panel’s conclusion was that Ngonyama had to leave as soon as possible.

After “thoughtful consideration and deep and thorough reflection”, University of Cape Town Council chair Babalwa Ngonyama announced in an email — sent out first thing on Monday — that she would be stepping down from her position at the helm of the university’s governing body.

This follows months of instability at UCT, in the wake of allegations brought to the Senate and reported on by Daily Maverick in October 2022 regarding possible malfeasance by Ngonyama and former vice-chancellor (VC) Mamokgethi Phakeng.

Ngonyama and Phakeng, who have since fallen out, were accused of colluding to hasten the exit from UCT of former executive Lis Lange, as well as restricting information to the university Senate and Council that could have harmed Phakeng’s chances of receiving a second term as VC.

Phakeng has since resigned — although she effectively jumped before she was pushed. Now Ngonyama has recorded a similar departure.

Ngonyama’s claims: UCT panel unlawful and unfair

An independent panel was decided on by the UCT Council in October 2022, to test primarily the claims made against Ngonyama and Phakeng and the relationships within the UCT executive.

After Phakeng resigned in late February 2023, the panel’s terms of reference were amended to make the investigation more general.

Ngonyama has contended that this shift of focus means it was untenable for the panel to try to “lay blame” against her. In her resignation letter, she described the panel’s operations as unfair and unlawful.

“As part of the process and in the interest of procedural fairness but also to ensure efficiency in how the claims made against me are addressed, I requested that I be furnished with the statements of the individuals [implicating Ngonyama in wrongdoing] beforehand.

“The request was made so that I could thoroughly respond to them and be afforded an adequate opportunity to address them. I also requested that I be allowed to cross examine the witnesses as part of testing the allegations against me. I was not afforded that courtesy,” Ngonyama wrote on Monday.

“It is important for any person appearing before the panel who needs to respond to claims against them to be given access to any statements or evidence presented by those making the claims against them. Unfortunately, the panel has been unwilling to grant me this opportunity, which conflicts with a basic tenet of procedural fairness.”

Ngonyama went so far as to seek an urgent order from the Western Cape High Court declaring the constitution of the panel unlawful. In her affidavit, she suggested that the Higher Education Act did not permit the establishment of the panel by the UCT Council.

“I will suffer reputational harm in my capacity as Chair of Council, personally and in my role as a businesswoman if adverse findings are made against me by an unlawfully constituted panel,” Ngonyama wrote.

Interim report lays out case against Ngonyama

An interim report from the panel — chaired by Judge Lex Mpati, and featuring Judge Azhar Cachalia, Dr Bernadette Johnson and Dr Trish Hanekom — lays out in some detail the back-and-forth correspondence between the panel and Ngonyama regarding her potential testimony.

It noted that after Phakeng resigned, Judge Cachalia prepared a memorandum on 15 March advising the panel on its changed terms of reference.

“He concluded that the panel was not precluded from making findings against specific persons and possible action, including disciplinary action, to be taken against implicated individuals other than the VC,” it says.

The panel began its hearings on 3 April, and has “received extensive written and oral evidence”.

All of the evidence it received has been treated confidentially, which appears to have been the crux of Ngonyama’s issues. The council chair felt that she should be able to see “statements, transcripts and any other evidence furnished to the inquiry” which implicated her in wrongdoing before testifying.

The panel responded that there was no automatic right for Ngonyama to gain access to this material — or to have legal representation, or to cross-examine witnesses. (The panel eventually said that Ngonyama could have a lawyer present, but by that stage it appears things had already devolved.)

The panel summarised the claims against Ngonyama as being that she failed to hold VC Phakeng to account; failed to act on the bullying allegations made against Phakeng in the former UCT Ombudsman’s report; acted in an unfair manner towards Lis Lange; and that she may even have acted unfairly towards the VC in offering her up as a “sacrificial lamb”.

“From the detailed summary of the facts, we suggest [Ngonyama] has no answer to the damning allegations against her. She has, therefore, elected not to respond by seeking refuge behind a thinly disguised legal façade,” the panel wrote.

The facts, write the panellists, “demonstrate that as early as May 2021, [Ngonyama] embarked on a strategy to terminate DVC Lange’s contract prematurely, and renew the VC’s term for a further five years”.

Phakeng, the panel finds, “went along with” Ngonyama’s plan “as she was also not keen to renew Lange’s contract”.

The panel highlights as a particularly concerning incident the fact that at a meeting on 17 March 2022 concerning Lange’s departure and Phakeng’s extension, “the senior HR representatives present were asked to leave”.

Wrote the panel: “This is unprecedented as there was no conceivable conflict of interest and the representatives are in any event bound by confidentiality requirements.” 

Further evidence to come in final report

Although Ngonyama has denied any wrongdoing, the panel claims, “There are other matters concerning [Ngonyama’s] conduct that emerged in the evidence, amongst others, pertaining to the resignation or termination of other executives which we shall deal with more fully in our final report.” 

The panel concluded the interim report — dated 17 May — by suggesting that Ngonyama’s continuing presence as chair of the UCT Council constitutes a “serious risk to the university”. It added that Ngonyama’s ultimate refusal to appear before the panel showed that the Council chair “cannot be trusted to fulfil her fiduciary duty to the university”.

In Ngonyama’s explanation of why she chose to resign now, “It would be a disservice to see a situation where the university returns to the days of instability or sections within the university once again becoming polarised by this matter. It is for this reason that I have concluded that it was best for me to resign and deal with this matter outside Council through the available legal mechanisms.” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    One could have seen this coming…Council Chair allying with the VC in pushing out a potential challenger, then falling out with said VC, and FINALLY doing her actual job – only to jump ship when the chickens came home to roost. Oh, UCT…!!

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Appointments on merit only – simple
    I am a South African

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    I wonder how many students will be unable to get bursaries due to the almost certain requirement for a large “bon voyage”.

  • Andrew Blaine says:

    Like an abscess, the poison emerges slowly and leaves a gooey mess behind! I bet this is not the end of the story? Lance it and let it flow!

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    A serious review of the rules governing a Board, and the limiting of the power of a chairperson is long overdue.

    • Bill Gild says:

      The rules, and power of the chairperson, were in place all along. What transpired is that they were trampled underfoot. Absent the actions of a (very) few individuals, the malfeasance of Phakeng and Ngonyama would simply have continued.

  • Grenville Wilson says:

    No surprises here!

  • Bill Gild says:

    Than to the (very) few who saw what was going on, took action, and facilitated the long-overdue cleansing of the highest ranks of UCT’s management – executive and council.

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