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Parliament weighs in on UCT’s big Phakeng-Ngonyama failed leadership mess

Parliament weighs in on UCT’s big Phakeng-Ngonyama failed leadership mess
Illustrative image: UCT (Photos: Wikipedia | Ashraf Hendricks)

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: 

Dark days: Accusations of capture and governance instability rock UCT

Independent report spits fire at UCT’s recent leadership, blasting Mamokgethi Phakeng 

University Governance 101 — takeaway lessons from UCT’s big Phakeng mess 

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.

University’s response

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”.

What next?

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    My sense is that in South Africa the word “transformation” is synonymous with “destruction”.

    I am all for equity and I understand the need to drive it.

    However, one can’t just put people without the requisite skills into positions that require them and expect success. For example I would never get on a plane without a fully qualified and appropriately trained pilot on board, regardless of that pilot’s race or gender.

    To our government: as it doesnt even after all this time appear apparent, if you dont appoint properly trained and experienced people having the required character for the positions to which you appoint them, then the result will be failure.

    There is no such thing as a free lunch, regardless of the colour or gender of the sandwich.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    The SRC and the Unions are “concerned” because for the life of them they don’t see anything wrong with her being “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”.

  • Leon Schipper says:

    So much for the ANC’s supposed turnaround plan to clamp down on corruption and maladministration. When one leading institution does implement an independent and (overly) fair disciplinary process against maladministration, corruption and capture
    then Parliament wants to waste its time and taxpayer money to find fault with the process. What chance is there for a fully statal, fully captured organisation like Eskom or Transnet to rid itself of the kanker?

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Social engineering has never worked – an academic institution such as UCT should know that. Merit based appointments alone are in the best interests of the students.
    There is more than enough evidence of the destruction of state or quasi state institutions to call for the abandonment of BEE. The poor are paying a heavy price for this political madness.

  • Henry Henry says:

    Fort Hareing UCT down?

  • Paul Zille says:

    “…. there are these issues that need to be nipped in the bud…”
    Loud and clear, comrade chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education.
    Brace for another very hard landing, UCT.

  • andrew farrer says:

    Why dont you list these “some committee members”? Must be anc&eff – let’s waste more taxpayer money to push money to a comrad to act as an independent assessor to assess the work of an independant commission panel!

  • Trenton Carr says:

    Someone said some harsh truths to a previously disadvantaged drama queen?
    Can’t have that!

  • Con Tester says:

    But… but… but who will independently assess the independent assessor?! 🤔

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