UNIVERSITY GOVERNANCE CRISIS
Parliament weighs in on UCT’s big Phakeng-Ngonyama failed leadership mess
Some committee members said Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande should consider appointing an independent assessor to look into the Mpati Report on governance at UCT after the SRC, two unions and some of the MPs raised concerns about its independence and recommendations.
There was some tension on Wednesday when the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation met with University of Cape Town (UCT) leaders to consider the damning findings and recommendations of an independent panel investigation into governance matters at the institution.
The committee said stakeholders at the university needed to up their game after the panel report that laid bare serious governance issues involving, in the main, former vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng and former council chair Babalwa Ngonyama.
Read Daily Maverick’s full breakdown of the governance crisis at UCT:
Some committee members said Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande should consider appointing an independent assessor to look into the report after the SRC, two unions and some of the MPs raised concerns about the report’s independence and recommendations.
Committee Chair Nompendulo Mkhatshwa later attempted to clarify things when addressing the UCT Council chair, Norman Arendse:
“Chair, we’re not saying we must interrogate the work that the panel did; we’re actually saying there must be a whole new process that is led by an independent assessor. We are not calling for administration either — I’m not saying this institution must be run by someone on your behalf, that’s not what we are saying.
“We are saying we are fine with that, but there are these issues that need to be nipped in the bud, and the only way we can do it is if we understand their root cause and find a way to pave the best way forward. That’s what we mean when we call for an independent assessor.”
The independent panel was chaired by retired judge Lex Mpati with retired Judge Azhar Cachalia, public sector governance expert Trish Hanekom and Wits transformation head Bernadette Johnson.
The report released last week excoriates Phakeng. It paints a picture of a narcissistic and thin-skinned leader who exploited and encouraged racial divisions — talking up a narrative of racial empowerment in public while saving some of her worst abuse for black women in private.
The panel was scorching in its condemnation of Phakeng and Ngonyama, stating: “To conclude that Ngonyama and Phakeng’s conduct during this period amounted to a governance failure would be an understatement.”
Phakeng “repeatedly conducted herself unprofessionally by engaging in activity that is prohibited in the UCT workplace, including using threats, intimidation, ethnic slurs, personal insults and also posting racially offensive material on social media”, the report concluded.
Her behaviour was aided and protected by Ngonyama’s multiple breaches of good governance, the report revealed. The report also found “Ngonyama’s conduct in failing to perform her fiduciary duty to UCT” sufficiently concerning that it recommended the businesswoman “be reported to the appropriate regulatory authorities”.
The panel heard the transcribed equivalent of 3,825 pages of oral evidence from 27 witnesses, read 1,671 pages of written statements from additional witnesses, and considered a further 478 pages of documentary evidence. The period it looked at ran from January 2018 to December 2022.
Phakeng said earlier on social media she was studying the report with her legal team. Ngonyama has denied the allegations against her and said via her legal representatives: “They are one-sided, unverified and untested, leading to the unlawful damage and defamation inflicted upon my dignity, reputation and character, which is profound.”
Professor Elelwani Ramugondo and conflict of interest
At the start of the meeting, Professor Elelwani Ramugondo, the deputy vice-chancellor for transformation, student affairs and social responsiveness, addressed the committee and asked if she should recuse herself, as she was implicated in the report.
The Mpati Report recommended that UCT institute disciplinary proceedings against Ramugondo for having posted a racially offensive message and then “untruthfully” denying to a selection committee and the panel under oath that the message in question referred to former deputy vice-chancellor Lis Lange.
Mkhatshwa ruled that the meeting would continue and that Ramugondo could remain in it.
Arendse said the Council would meet on Saturday to further discuss the report.
In a statement released after the meeting, Arendse said: “The University of Cape Town (UCT) Council reiterates that it has adopted the findings and recommendations of the independent panel of investigation on governance matters at UCT during the period 2018-2022, following careful consideration. Council has agreed that the report and its findings are substantively fair, rationally related to its purpose and provide credible evidence.
“We acknowledge the right of stakeholders to call for the appointment of an independent assessor to test the veracity of the report. We do not believe this process should stall or hinder UCT using the report as a roadmap to guide it towards a future marked by accountability and transparency, and a renewed commitment to strengthen the governance of the university. The UCT Council stands by the findings of the independent panel of investigation and will be implementing its recommendations.”
He said that transformation was one of the pillars of the university’s 2030 vision and strategy.
“We take transformation seriously. We give effect to it in different ways, including through implementation of our employment equity policy, as well as the measures we take in promoting the development of outstanding early- and mid-career black academics. We follow our employment equity policy rigorously in our selection processes. In addition, the UCT Senate has taken steps to address issues and gaps in relation to its gender and race profile. However, we acknowledge that this is a journey.”
He pointed out that the report found that race had been used to sow division at UCT.
“We do not believe that failures in governance and leadership should be construed as a failure in transformation. The report details an abuse of power, bullying and the past failure of Council to act appropriately.”
He said the Council looked forward to “robust, reasonable and meaningful engagement” on the report’s findings with the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation, and “will endeavour to answer with transparency and accountability within their deadline”.
Department of Higher Education and Training Deputy Director-General Dr Marcia Socikwa said she would submit the request for an independent assessor to Minister Nzimande. The university leadership undertook to respond to outstanding questions within seven working days. DM