Defend Truth


Defend the whistle-blower: UCT shoots the messenger, ignores the message


Jeremy Seekings is Professor of Political Studies and Sociology at the University of Cape Town. His most recent book, co-authored with Professor Nicoli Nattrass, is Inclusive Dualism: Labour-Intensive Development, Decent Work and Surplus Labour in Southern Africa (Oxford University Press, 2019).

The unfolding battle between the University of Cape Town’s ombud, Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, and the vice-chancellor, Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, reveals how creeping managerialism within UCT risks sliding into ‘executive authoritarianism’, fuelled by the current hyper-racialised climate and culminating in the persecution of whistle-blowers.

The ombud of the University of Cape Town (UCT), Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, has been summoned to meet the chair of UCT’s governing council (according to a News24 report on Saturday, 26 September 2020, and then picked up by the Sunday Independent) over her alleged “misconduct”. It seems that UCT’s council has decided to suspend the university’s ombud.

The precise allegations against the ombud have not been revealed, but it seems likely that they refer to her audacity in, first, reporting multiple and serious allegations to council about the conduct of UCT’s vice-chancellor (VC) Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, then publishing her report on the ombud’s website (leading to media coverage, beginning with News24) and, most recently, criticising in the media the council itself for its tardiness in dealing with the allegations against the VC.

Rather than addressing the message, council is attacking the messenger.

This saga reveals how creeping managerialism within the university risks sliding into “executive authoritarianism”, fuelled by the current hyper-racialised climate, and culminating in the persecution of whistle-blowers.

The role of the ombud

An ombud is not supposed to function as a whistle-blower. The UCT ombud’s website explains that “the Office of the Ombud provides a safe and objective place where people can air their concerns, receive referrals, find out about relevant policies and procedures, and discuss formal and informal options for addressing their concerns”. The objective is to help to resolve people’s concerns over interpersonal conflict within the university as a workplace.

In 2018-19, according to her annual report, the ombud received 663 “visitors” from across (and beyond) the university, including students, academic and administrative staff, and even senior members of the university’s management. These included numerous complaints by people who “felt bullied, silenced, undermined, rebuked and/or treated unfairly” by the VC, Prof Phakeng, or who had witnessed such behaviour. The ombud later reported to council that as many as 37 people from all parts of the university had “complained about the VC”.

UCT has no clear mechanisms for addressing grievances against the VC. 

The university established a decade or more ago a “committee for procedural review” to consider grievances involving senior university officials, but this is chaired by the VC herself – and is not well known within the university. The ombud is the obvious alternative, but it is not clear how the ombud should act over grievances against the VC. This is especially the case when, as the ombud wrote in her annual report, “not one of those who brought these issues [to me] wanted me to approach the VC as they feared retaliation” (while, at the same time, the ombud’s own relationship with the VC had deteriorated).

This seems to have left the ombud with little choice but to blow the whistle to council – which bears ultimate responsibility for the governance of the university – and, when council procrastinated, in the press also.

Council’s investigation into UCT’s ‘dysfunctional executive’

UCT’s council seems to have responded to the ombud’s report in three phases. First it delayed. Then it investigated and found that the allegations were the tip of the iceberg, in that the VC’s leadership style was integral to a more general crisis of executive dysfunctionality. Then (since July) a new council seems to have veered towards silencing the ombud rather than addressing the crisis of executive leadership.

Under pressure from the VC, council did not discuss the ombud’s report at its meeting in March. This prompted the deputy chair to resign in protest against “a breach of established practice and a cover-up”. Council did proceed to discuss the report at a special meeting in April, instructing its chair (Sipho Pityana) and (new) deputy chair to “engage the VC regarding… her leadership style and its impact on institutional governance” – and to meet also with the three deputy vice-chancellors (DVCs) and chief operating officer (COO) regarding “tensions in the senior leadership team”. This “engagement” was limited to the “executive”.

Pityana’s report (in June) corroborated the ombud’s overall concern. He reported that the prevalent “leadership style” relied excessively and unsustainably on coercion. He pointed to an “authoritarian leadership style that is about throwing around the weight of the Office”, “mistrust”, “a culture of pandering for endearment from those in power”, “mindless insecurity” (i.e. an “endless fear” of being “undermined” or “unseated” from the office of the vice-chancellor), “abrasive behaviour”, “poor interpersonal skills and an inability to build a cohesive team” and a “non-collegial culture”.

The report concluded that “this has been experienced as sometimes humiliating, demeaning, undermining, disrespectful and not good for the personal health of all those affected”.  

Pityana’s report and other documents also revealed that he and others had a history of concerns with the VC’s leadership style, dating back to her appointment in 2018 (when he acknowledged her “leadership and personality shortcomings”) and continuing through 2019 (when council appointed an ad hoc committee to repair their strained relationship).

Even as Pityana was “engaging” with the “executive”, the alleged toxicity persisted. The DVCs and COO wrote to Pityana in May complaining that their working environment was not “psychologically safe”. They suggested “the VC should be offered a personal coach and/or mentor” and that a “senior coach” attend meetings of the “executive” to promote more healthy interactions.

Pityana’s report did not cover the ombud’s implicit concern that the toxicity within the “executive” affected many other people within the university. It did, however, clearly validate the message that the ombud had sent to council, that there was a serious problem. The allegations of toxicity remain untested allegations, but they should not be dismissed or ignored.

Racialisation obscures issues of governance

Given that its four-year term ended at the end of June, Pityana and the outgoing council passed the responsibility for resolving the leadership crisis to its successor.

The ombud published her report, including her introduction, on Thursday 9 July 2020. Over the following week, she said in an interview, she was “inundated” with yet more complaints about the VC’s “leadership style”.

Although the VC herself did not comment publicly, the twitterverse was full of outraged tweets around #HandsOffProfPhakeng. 

The ombud was accused of being a front for a white racist establishment. The ombud responded that the complaints came from staff and students “of all different races”. She added that she would never let herself “be used by any race group”. The ombud went on to suggest that the UCT council was slow to act over the VC because the VC was a black woman. The ombud insisted that her mandate required her to address grievances even when they concerned a black woman VC.

“Black people should not protect each other like that,” she averred, adding that she “wasn’t going to bow to the pressure. If someone transgresses, notwithstanding their race, they should be called on it.”

“I am clearly delivering on my mandate. When I assumed this position, I promised to challenge the highest powers, if need be. To hold a mirror to the institution: ‘This is what’s not quite working, please fix it.’ I cannot be forced to sweep the truth under a rug. How can I be party to knives being out? This narrative in itself, it is bullying. I want everyone to stop and breathe, and to think about bullying. The very person who should be reflecting about her leadership style right now, is lashing out to discredit my report.”

The ombud reportedly reiterated this in a subsequent letter to council: “As ombud and as a person, I find the view that black women should not be accountable (a view that seems to underlie the approach of council… ) as short-sighted and [I] feel strongly that it does huge disservice to black people and to anyone else for that matter.”

Media and social media focused on the dispute between the ombud and VC, paying much less attention to Pityana’s more damning indictment of the “deeply dysfunctional” executive.

More than six months after the allegations first surfaced, there is little evidence that council has done anything to hold the “executive” to account or to redress the culture of intimidation. 

There has been no substantial report to senate or to the university as a whole. The new chair of council strongly supported the VC in a statement to the university in July 2020. In a subsequent interview (in the Sunday Times, 6 September), she referred to an “ongoing internal process”. This seems to be a cover-up.

The only clear action of the new council has been to suspend the ombud.

UCT’s council appears to be complicit in the entrenchment of “corporate authoritarianism” within the university. 

The bureaucratisation and commercialisation of universities is a global phenomenon, but it has taken on a particular form in post-apartheid South Africa given the deepening imperatives of “transformation”, driven in part by the state and in part from within universities themselves. Chetty and Merrett write that vice-chancellors have been transformed from “custodians” of their universities into “medium-term managing directors” or “apparatchiks with time-bound targets and performance indicators that determine their personal success or failure in the eyes of political masters on councils and in government. Their decisions are thus bound up with individual agendas, ambition, ego – and, above all, sheer survival. Directives are filtered down through a series of highly rewarded line managers, messengers with disciplinary power.” (2016: 20). Recent changes to the composition of council accentuate this trend.

Whenever conflicts erupt, they can be represented in Manichean terms as between transformation (good) and its opponents (bad), even when all parties to the conflict are committed to transformation. 

It is also unsurprising that conflicts are quickly racialised, not only when the parties are deemed to be “racially” different (according to South Africa’s apartheid and post-apartheid categories, as between the VC, DVCs and COO) but even when they are from the same “racial group” (as between the VC, Ombud and Pityana). 

Indeed, the new American ideology of race propounded by entrepreneurs such as Robin DiAngelo (and embraced by at least some of UCT’s leaders) legitimates and fuels racialised interpretations. “Transformation” and “anti-racism” are invoked to suppress debate and to obscure shifts in governance.

This seems clear at the level of South Africa as a whole, where Jacob Zuma, his supporters and publicists played the race card to defuse criticism and distract attention from systematic looting of public resources. The public protector between 2009 and 2016, Thuli Madonsela, played a key role in exposing systemic misconduct within government and the ruling party. When her term ended, it was unsurprising that she was replaced with someone who proved more compliant to State Capture.

Universities, like South Africa as a whole, need independent ombuds who can expose alleged misconduct and complicity at the highest levels, even (or especially) in the face of a concerted effort to delegitimise and discredit the ombuds themselves. 

No doubt UCT’s VC and council would prefer a more compliant ombud. This should be resisted. Even if a particular model and ideology of transformation can be imposed in an environment of toxicity, bullying and authoritarian overreach, this is likely to be fatal to the long-term health of a transformed university. 

Collegiality, respect for difference and collaborative decision-making should be promoted to restore an inclusive environment where everyone feels safe to contribute to the transformation project. An independent ombud helps to protect an inclusive environment.

UCT should stand behind its ombud. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hendrik Mentz says:

    If there was ‘a history of concerns […] dating back to her appointment’ that means more worthy candidates were overlooked and that consequentially the institution and our country suffers.

  • Bill Gild says:

    I am so glad that you have (finally) found your voice, Jeremy, in this embarrassingly sordid (and yes, I use this word deliberately) matter.
    That the current VC has been fingered as authoritarian, bullying and lacking in interpersonal skills is, I believe, the tip of a much larger iceberg. I, and another, commented, on a closed e-mail group, on Phakeng’s quite juvenile posts on Twitter, and the general inappropriateness of her public behaviour as a (then) deputy vice-chancellor of a major university. Needless to say, I and the other were excoriated by then VC (Max Price) in a letter to the entire UCT community, and several of the members of the e-mail group, yourself included, huffily condemned our (mine, and another’s) statements.

    Phakeng’s juvenile and frequently inappropriate postings on Twitter and other social media have only grown since her accession to the post of the most senior academic officer at UCT.

    Yes, a degree of gravitas IS appropriate in an individual who occupies such a senior position (although another very senior retired UCT academic posited – at the time of our letters – that this was not necessary), as senior leadership inevitably projects the “face” of the university; a “face” that not only encourages, or discourages, financial and other support for the institution world-wide, but also affects the attractiveness of UCT as a place for the best and brightest at which to study, and to teach.

    I have little to no doubt that the current ombudsman will indeed be fired, that the much-reported cat-fights amongst senior leadership will continue, and that UCT will continue on its path to irrelevance on the world stage.

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