Sipho Pityana’s criticism of the UCT investigative panel’s report on former VC is ‘misleading, baseless and insincere’
The former chair of the UCT Council Sipho Pityana’s criticism of the findings of the investigative panel into the tenure of former VC Mamokgethi Phakeng are misleading in several respects.
Sipho Pityana’s criticism of the UCT investigative panel’s report deserves an immediate response, precisely because it is misleading, baseless and insincere. As Pityana admits that his criticism is based on his reading of the “executive summary” only, it cannot be called a legitimate criticism of the report.
His response is knee-jerk and uninformed, a product of a lack of self-reflection. It may well be that he did not even read the executive summary, for a proper reading of the executive summary reveals that his main concern with the report is misplaced, as are his ancillary concerns.
Pityana was chair of the UCT Council at the time Mamokgethi Phakeng was appointed UCT vice-chancellor. He left the council about midway into Phakeng’s tenure when the new council was appointed and Babalwa Ngonyama was elected its chair.
In his response, Pityana is clearly unhappy with aspects of the panel’s report, especially those pertaining to the governance failures of the UCT Council during his leadership. His response is meant to address one of the main findings of the panel; namely, that Phakeng should not have been appointed as vice-chancellor. However, upon close consideration, Pityana reveals other concerns, including that the panel was unfair to him in that it did not give him an opportunity to respond to the evidence adverse to him; that the panel did not consider objective evidence; and that UCT Council “was quick” to adopt and implement the report.
With respect to the main concern, Pityana deliberately obfuscates his argument in order to misrepresent the findings of the panel.
He goes on at length explaining the appointment process and extolling the academic qualifications of the former vice-chancellor. This creates the impression that the panel found that she was not academically qualified to be appointed vice-chancellor, but the panel never made such a finding. Instead, the panel raises questions about how known concerns about the former vice-chancellor’s leadership were not taken seriously.
The panel had the benefit of hindsight and oral and documentary evidence submitted by 27 witnesses that amplified the significance of the leadership concerns that Pityana at the time of the appointment trivialised and now continues to ignore.
It is thus simply unfair to accuse the panel of relying on gossip or mere conjecture in its analysis of the leadership deficits candidate Phakeng exhibited at the time of, and after, her appointment. That Pityana appears to dismiss so easily concerns about Phakeng’s leadership – even after the incalculable damage she has demonstrably done to UCT and members of its community, as the report so meticulously shows – demonstrates that the panel was correct in its negative findings about Pityana’s leadership.
I would go as far as to argue that Pityana is less than candid about these leadership concerns. The panel’s report is replete with oral and documentary evidence, including that submitted by Pityana himself, that proves the reality of Phakeng’s leadership deficits.
For example, the panel cites Pityana as having testified that “that soon after her appointment Phakeng seemed to be increasing tensions rather than reducing them, as she had promised she would”, that Phakeng “unreasonably targeted [Professor Loretta] Feris by disagreeing more forcefully than necessary in meetings and often remarked that she was the only black person in the executive”, and that Phakeng “appeared to be using her newfound power to settle scores”.
The report also cites Pityana as having “described the difficulties he had in his interaction with [Phakeng] to his colleagues”. In another paragraph, the panel cites council minutes showing a ‘visibly angry’ Pityana strongly rebuking Phakeng in the presence of the council.
Pityana is also insincere in another sense. Although he goes on at length eulogising the academic credentials of Phakeng, which the panel did not call into question, he expressly perpetuates a less publicly known misrepresentation by Phakeng, which is grave, nevertheless. Throughout his piece, Pityana addresses Phakeng as “Prof Phakeng”, which gives the impression she was a professor at UCT. She was not. Phakeng’s recognised formal academic title at UCT was associate professor.
Pityana saw and signed the contract between Phakeng and UCT, and is aware of this misrepresentation. Misleading university organs such as the senate and the council were at the core of the panel’s investigation and findings. Clearly, Pityana has not learnt anything from the report.
Broad investigative powers
The ancillary point made by Pityana that he was not given an opportunity to respond to the adverse evidence given against him, that the panel did not consider objective evidence, or that the panel acted procedurally unfairly merits a brief response. This argument is disingenuous because the panel was given broad investigative powers and relied on the inquisitorial, rather than the adversarial, approach. Public inquiries are allowed to use this well-known methodology.
By his own admission, Pityana testified before the panel and gave his own version of the governance challenges.
In addition, the panel considered evidence from 26 other witnesses, including from Phakeng herself, and documents running into hundreds of pages. As the evidence cited by the panel shows, Pityana was more candid in his testimony to the panel than in his article in describing the leadership challenges he was dealing with.
Far from ignoring his evidence, the panel relies heavily on Pityana’s own evidence to make some of the most damning findings. It must be pointed out that these findings are not personal to Pityana, but relevant only to the extent that they implicate the role of the UCT Council in the governance failures that took place.
In this regard, Pityana is right that UCT has well-established policies on governance, but he fails to recognise the point that the panel makes: that these policies were not implemented to prevent and mitigate the impact of the governance failures that took place during Phakeng’s tenure.
Lastly, Pityana’s dig at the UCT Council that it “was quick to adopt the report” is mischievous. As is publicly known, the chair of council announced that it had received and read the report on 14 October, and later that it had adopted the report on 28 October. Only on 11 November did the council agree on a roadmap to address past governance failures. Given the well-documented governance failures highlighted in the report, it is incumbent on the UCT Council to take measures to repair the damage done, to apologise to all the victims, and improve governance. That is the singular responsibility of the council. DM
The identity of the author of this opinion article is known to the Daily Maverick editor. The author asked that their name not be used in this instance for fear of reprisal. Daily Maverick can confirm that the author is a senior leader at the University of Cape Town with first-hand knowledge of the processes that led to the establishment of the panel and the subsequent response to the findings by the council and UCT.