South Africa


The truth about Mamokgethi Phakeng’s qualifications — a response to ‘Anonymous’

The truth about Mamokgethi Phakeng’s qualifications — a response to ‘Anonymous’
Sipho Pityana (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press / Leon Sadiki)

There can be no question that UCT’s recruitment and selection policy and process was followed and determined that Mamokgethi Phakeng was the best candidate for the role. And yet ‘Anonymous’ alleges that ‘known concerns about the former Vice Chancellor’s (VC) leadership were not taken seriously’.

When an important forum led by illustrious jurists and others undertakes as important an inquiry, as the UCT Panel was assigned to do, and makes weighty recommendations, the credibility of its work must be beyond question and it should base itself only on objective and verifiable facts.

Rightly, Anonymous asserts that I should be aware of her true professional status. But Anonymous is incorrect in saying she was not a professor.

In the UCT  Panel Report, paragraph 657 notes that “the recommendation of the Selection Committee to appoint (Mamokgethi) Phakeng as VC despite clear evidence of her inability to lead and manage senior executives was ill-considered”.

On 15 November, I published an article in Daily Maverick questioning this conclusion by the panel. The panel’s report in respect of the appointment of Professor Phakeng pretends to be an objective view, when in fact it is no more than a retrospective and subjective conclusion. Therefore its assertion of governance failure in this regard is flawed.

After all, the report addresses the appointment process in only six brief paragraphs (102-108), and the remainder of its section on Phakeng’s appointment as VC (109-137) alludes to her tenure in office.

There can be no denying the fact that some of Phakeng’s conduct as documented in the report met not only with my stern censure and reprimand, but also with that of the Council of the university. While it might be useful to address this at some point, as I did in my submission to the panel, it was not the purpose of my clearly single-point intervention of 15 November.

Questioning the veracity of the report and its conclusion is less about the defence of Prof Phakeng and more about casting doubt about the reliance that can be placed on an obviously flawed conclusion/s as the institution navigates a path to self-correction.

Any attempt to silence critics of the panel’s report by painting them into petty factional divisions of council and university should have no place at an institution of higher learning, where free and open discourse should not only be tolerated but encouraged. Of greater concern still is that it will prove even more divisive and costly for the university.

Strangely, on 16 November 2023, Daily Maverick published a scurrilous response to my article making factually inaccurate, if not defamatory statements by a “senior leader at the University of Cape Town with first-hand knowledge of the processes that led to the establishment of the panel” who is only identified as “Anonymous”.

Although in her/his response there is a pretence that Phakeng’s qualifications and credentials are not at issue, Anonymous takes us back there in her/his scurrilous aspersions against her professional status. S/he asserts that “he (Pityana) perpetuates a less publicly known misrepresentation by Phakeng as ‘Prof Phakeng’ which gives the impression she was a Professor at UCT. She was not”.

Rightly, Anonymous asserts that I should be aware of her true professional status. But Anonymous is incorrect in saying she was not a professor.

In her letter of appointment dated 17 December 2015 and signed by the then VC Dr Max Price, from which Prof Phakeng has granted me permission to quote, it states:  

“I have pleasure in offering you appointment as Deputy Vice-Chancellor with effect from 1 July 2016. In addition, we offer you a Professorship in the School of Education, Faculty of Humanities. This appointment will run concurrently with the position as Deputy Vice-Chancellor and will be available to you should the Deputy Vice-Chancellor term end before your retirement age.”

The impression is not only that she may have lied, but that I reinforced the same – and even more seriously, that the recruitment and selection process was similarly under the same false impression.

These are serious allegations that any serious media should know to verify before publication. Daily Maverick therefore has a duty to reveal Anonymous’s identity and proof of their allegations.

There can be no question that the UCT’s recruitment and selection policy and process was followed and determined that Prof Phakeng was the best candidate for the role. And yet Anonymous alleges that “known concerns about the former VC’s leadership were not taken seriously”.

Presumably s/he is referring to paragraphs 82-98 of the report, which alludes to her tenure as the deputy VC: Research and Internationalisation which dwells on tensions between some executives and Prof Phakeng.

It remains true that this account derives from only one, albeit important, section of the university. While not commenting on the accuracy or otherwise of that evidence to the panel, it is unclear how a conclusion is reached that it was not taken seriously by the Selection Committee (SC). Despite the evidence to the panel that a sub committee of the SC met with Prof Phakeng to discuss some of these concerns, the impression created is that the SC relied on my say-so.

The SC was made up of representatives – many of whom would have come from other parts of the university – that Prof Phakeng would have worked with in her short tenure as the deputy VC. She was not an outsider and a stranger to many on the SC. The fact that after considering the concerns about the allegations of her allegedly difficult interpersonal skills, the SC came to a conclusion that she was the best candidate for the role can in no way be said to have been an “ill-considered” decision.

After all, a few years earlier, according to the report, Dr Price became aware of “unconfirmed adverse reports regarding her (Prof Phakeng’s) performance and relationships with colleagues. Price was unable to elicit specific evidence confirming these criticisms from her referees. There were, therefore, no grounds not to appoint her”. While the panel happily accepts the rationale for this decision, it questions that of the SC, Senate and Council in appointing her as VC.

To illustrate the point: the SC directly addressed during the interviews the known animosity between Profs Phakeng and Ferris.  The SC made clear the high regard in which Loretta Ferris was held, not only by Council, but by the wider university community, and wanted to better understand it and whether they would be able to work together. She gave this assurance.

There can be no doubt, as Anonymous argues, that the panel based itself “on the benefit of hindsight” in coming to its conclusion. It is also clear that they ignored the record of deliberations that led to the SC’s recommendations and decisions by Senate and Council.

The panel’s conclusions in this regard were based on subjective considerations. DM

Sipho Mila Pityana is the former Chairperson of the UCT Council.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Trenton Carr says:

    Yep, he’s getting paid for this alright, probably some of that taxpayer f’off and go bribe money.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    If she was a white lady my brother, would you be posting?

    I would put money that the answer is “No”.

    If you have read enough of the many many stories of people suffering during her tenure and you were objective and honest with yourself you would acknowledge that she was the wrong person for the job.

    So please stop pretending your position has any other driver than race. You are holding our country back from growth through honesty.

  • Con Tester says:

    The trouble with many long-time academicians is that inevitably at some point they start believing the world consists entirely of students. A large part of that conviction is that the “wisdom” they dispense comes from on high, that it requires neither reasoned argument nor factual substantiation to sustain it, that the mere act of proclamation thereof establishes its truth by virtue of the proclaimer’s unassailable “authority,” and that it is therefore beyond question.

    This little piece of puffery is an exemplary case in point.

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