Maverick Citizen


The racialisation of UCT enabled Mamokgethi Phakeng’s rogue behaviour


Jeremy Seekings is Professor of Politics and Sociology at the University of Cape Town and Acting Director of UCT’s Institute for Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy in Africa. Nicoli Nattrass is Professor of Economics at the University of Cape Town.

The Mpati Report makes it clear that Phakeng not only saw the people around her through a primarily racial lens, but energetically and uncritically applied the racial labels that were institutionalised by the apartheid state. Part One in a two-part series.

South Africa’s premier scholar of “race”, Neville Alexander, warned repeatedly of the perils of racialisation, which he believed could and often did lead to intolerance and aggression towards the “other”. In his view, the apparently innocuous racialisation of everyday interactions could all too easily degenerate into violence (and – in the most extreme cases – genocide).

The recent report of the panel chaired by Judge Lex Mpati into the governance of the University of Cape Town (UCT) provides extraordinary evidence of the kinds of everyday racialisation that Alexander abhorred.

The Mpati Report documents how racialisation corrodes relationships, silences discussion and dissent, negates mechanisms of accountability and can even – perversely – retard “transformation”.

Much of the evidence presented in the Mpati Report concerns the conduct of UCT’s Vice-Chancellor (VC) from 2018 until early 2023, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. The report makes it clear that Phakeng not only saw the people around her through a primarily racial lens but energetically and uncritically applied the racial labels that were institutionalised by the apartheid state.

‘Crass obsession with race’

The Chair of Council until mid-2020, Sipho Pityana, is quoted as saying that Phakeng had a “crass” obsession with race. The Mpati Report documents how she applied this worldview aggressively, repeatedly humiliating her colleagues, engaging in stereotypes and actively discriminating against people who, in her view, were insufficiently “black”.

Phakeng’s primary victims appear to have been people who she dismissed as “coloured” despite – in several cases – their self-identification as “black”. Phakeng’s attitude and conduct displayed an astonishing ignorance of and insensitivity to the history of discrimination and identity in the region where she led a major university.

Phakeng told people that she was the only “real” “black” person in UCT’s executive team (and within the administration), shaming and marginalising those colleagues who she labelled as not really “black” like her, disregarding how these colleagues identified themselves (and the background of one as a founder member of UCT’s “Black Academic Caucus”).

Other people were not “black”, she reportedly said, because they did not have her hair and appearance (and even smell and “taste”!). She repeatedly denigrated one of her deputy vice-chancellors on racial grounds, on one occasion reducing her to tears (pp88-90). When asked about this by the panel, Phakeng engaged in crass racial stereotyping, telling the panel that “white and coloured women are taught to cry to evoke sympathy”.

Her unproductive and unethical racialised conduct did not go unnoticed. In the first (delayed) review of her performance, in 2019, Phakeng was advised to desist from racial division.

Phakeng, however, repeatedly racialised criticisms of her own conduct, attempting to shift the narrative from her own abusive conduct to her as a victim. Her supporters similarly sought to deflect criticisms of Phakeng through racialised attacks on the critics. Anyone with opposing views was dismissed as anti-transformation” or racist, and their views were attacked as indicative of “institutional racism”.

When one (insufficiently “black”) dean questioned Phakeng’s approach to transformation, Phakeng began to refer to her as “the anti-transformation dean”. The Mpati Report refers to Phakeng’s “race-baiting” of her colleagues.

The racialisation of the university (and South African society more widely) framed and deepened the crisis. The panel suggests that Phakeng was appointed despite evidence of her weaknesses because the chair of Council was desperate to appoint a “black” VC.  

Culture of silence

The panel suggests further that Council was reluctant to act decisively over her misconduct because she was “black”. In the panel’s account, racialisation also contributed to a general culture of silence within the university’s leadership, as senior officers remained silent rather than disagree with the VC and risk racialised abuse. Racialisation thus helped a rogue VC avoid being held to account for far too long.

Phakeng’s abusive racialisation of her interactions with colleagues extended to the administration of the university. Phakeng insisted – overriding her deputy vice-chancellor for transformation – that an engagement with “black” academics take the form of separate racially segregated meetings with “black”, “coloured” and “Indian” professors.

The former head of Human Resources testified that Phakeng would “almost routinely” approve “higher than standard remuneration for black African persons who joined UCT” while resisting similar remuneration to “persons from other designated groups”.

Phakeng would also “consistently insist on an improved performance award for black African employees but did the opposite if the relevant employee was not black African”.

In light of this it is perhaps not a surprise that Phakeng reportedly said in Council that she did not believe in non-racialism – and had to be reminded that non-racialism was embedded in South Africa’s Constitution. (This reminds us of UCT’s declaration in 2020 that its new vision entailed “saying no to non-racialism”, before public criticism led the university to backtrack and rephrase this – but nonetheless continuing to flirt with American denunciations of non-racialism).

Phakeng also abused people who were as “black” as she considered herself to be, including the ombud and the head of the international office. But the detail in the Mpati Report suggests that Phakeng abused African critics despite their being “black”, but abused people who she considered to be “white” or insufficiently “black” in part because she saw them as racially “other”.

In a revealing comment to the former ombud, Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, Phakeng congratulated her for “taking on a white man” – a categorisation the ombud objected to, possibly signalling the beginning of the deterioration of their relationship.

The Mpati Report provides extensive evidence that Phakeng held the kind of racially essentialist views that characterised the apartheid state and that this racial essentialism informed her relationships with colleagues and her administration of the university.

In the US, the use of racial categories has been defended on strategic grounds. In this view, racial essentialism can be functional to “anti-racism” either by revealing forms of racism that are themselves not observable or by underpinning racialised solidarity against racism.

Such “strategic essentialism” has its critics. These include Gayatri Spivak, who had been its original champion in the 1980s but subsequently came around to the assessment (shared with Neville Alexander) that any essentialist use of racial categories was ultimately divisive and counterproductive.

Whether one agrees with strategic essentialism or not, Phakeng’s use of race is also objectionable for the way that she extends essentialist stereotyping of “white” people (in the style of American “anti-racism”) to the treatment of colleagues who she labels as “coloured” and not “really black”.

Just as American “anti-racists” accuse “white” critics of “white fragility” and dehumanise them by dismissing their emotional upset as offensive “white tears”, Phakeng was apparently dismissive of colleagues who she labelled as “coloured” for their fragility and dehumanised them for their tears.

In her use of apartheid-era “racial” labels and her policing of authentic “blackness”, Phakeng took the most divisive aspects of American-style “anti-racism” to a new level.

Neville Alexander would have been appalled. We should all be appalled. DM

Read Part Two here


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Had Neville been around during Phakeng’s tenure … he would no doubt have been at the receiving end of her ‘assaults’ or is it superior wisdom ? Given his impish sense of humour, it would have been interesting to note his response/s to those situations !

  • Agf Agf says:

    Appalled, yes. Surprised, no. When you appoint someone who is patently unfit because you are “desperate to appoint a black VC”. Says it all.

    • Mark Gory Gory says:

      Acting from a place of desperation dooms the outcome. Still she walked with a hige bonus?
      That’s why many are packing up and leaving. Mediocrity and servitude to reverse apartheid are all this “new order” understands.

  • David Walker says:

    Very encouraging that there are still some critical thinkers at UCT willing to speak out against the prevailing racialisation of our society. Perhaps the current obsession with racial classification may be slowly easing? I like the way these authors have put the term ‘race’ and the so-called ‘racial categories’ within inverted commas. This emphasizes the point that racial groups are entirely artificial constructs and have no scientific or biological basis.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    “The panel suggests that Phakeng was appointed despite evidence of her weaknesses because the chair of Council was desperate to appoint a “black” VC. “. Isn’t this evident throught our institutions, SOEs and even large private corporations; appointmentees who are black and Female being most prized. Take a look at Transnet (now regarded as the biggest threat to the SA economy) to see the damage caused by recruitment by colour and gender.

  • Kim Brink says:

    This is exactly what happened to me on the House Committee in Graca Machel Hall in 2017 where, as one of two white members, I was also bullied by the Committee’s Head. We were white first, then leaders. We could never say what we thought because it was through the lens of a white person.
    It was to the extent that the other white member left not only the Committee but had to move out of the residence.
    This bullying is far wider and started before Phakeng’s term – going as far down as the student leadership.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    All the fine words in the world don’t hide that the fact that this is a predictable example of the result of an international policy of appointing people to critically important positions based on their victim creds rather than a demonstrable track record of excellence.

  • Con Tester says:

    There is a subculture that confidently asserts the impossibility of a black person being in any meaningful sense racist.

    Phakeng is a prominent and persuasive counterexample that clearly demonstrates the speciousness of that absurd fiction.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      In terms of your first assertion, would it apply to the recent rugby incident which one player’s use of the term ‘kant’ has been trivialised as a joke … and not worthy of investigation ?

      • Con Tester says:

        If Bongi really did call England player Curry a “white c**t,” then that of course is an egregious racist slur by any reasonable definition of “racism.” Moreover, World Rugby—before concluding there was insufficient evidence to convict Bongi, based on a probable alternative explanation of what he actually said—averred with considerable energy that such accusations are taken “very seriously,” so that it’s likely that it was probed very carefully.

        The fact that the general public has made light of the incident is ultimately neither here nor there, much as public sentiment can hold no sway over legal proceedings—at least in theory. Only verifiable facts count. There are clear and fairly precise criteria that identify racism, regardless of where it springs from, and subjective intuitions are quite correctly never conclusive here.

  • Michael Thomlinson says:

    Sorry, I ahve to turn this round: If a white person had acted in the way that this past VC has done I think they would have been charged with racialism and would be looking at jail time or a big fine by now. Instead she gets a R7 mil handshake.
    The way she has acted seems to be a symptomatic of people who are not qualified for the job placed in positions of power (much like our past PP). To cover up poor performance or inadequacies they are arrogant, racist and belittle co-workers.

    • Loyiso Nongxa says:

      The report says she was qualified for the job of VC.

      • Michael Cosser says:

        Certainly she was qualified – on paper. Qualification includes many other attributes, however – the absence of some of which were noted even before her appointment.

      • T'Plana Hath says:

        “Phakeng was appointed to the UCT top spot despite misgivings – and one of the unofficial conditions imposed upon her was that she would work with a coach to improve her leadership style. Phakeng resented this, and on this point the panel sides with the former VC, writing: “That the appointment of a VC can be made subject to a condition that a mentor be appointed to overcome a major leadership deficit was unwise”.”
        A mentor was appointed to overcome MAJOR leadership deficits. If you have a major skills deficit, how can you possibly be qualified? Regardless of what the report says, the facts clearly indicate she was un-Phakeng-qualified.

      • Bob Dubery says:

        She certainly ticked all the academic boxes. No argument there. There is no “qualification” for the role of VC at a university, just as there isn’t when it comes to being a CEO at a listed company.

  • Robin Smaill says:

    We can only dream of a prosperous South African while there is any form of discrimination or selection bias. This includes racism and gender inequality. Generalizations and judgements about people on anything except ability deprives them of dignity and the country of productivity. It is good that UCT has been cleansed. People are people and should be treated as such.

  • Loyiso Nongxa says:

    I read the whole report from beginning to the end and couldn’t find any evidence from which one could infer that “Phakeng’s primary victims appear to have been people who she dismissed as “coloured” despite……”. The Extension of University Education Act racialised South African universities and it would be disingenuous to suggest that UCT’s “racialisation” is a recent phenomenon. In fact, only two victims are explicitly identified as coloured, out of 37 who complained to the Ombudsman anonymously, and those listed whose race is not given. From a distance, the Western Cape is a racialised province, and north alone in that. The article obsesses on race and overlooks important findings that those who care about our higher education institutions can learn from. Disappointing.

  • Bob Dubery says:

    The problem is not that she was black, but that she was temperamentally unsuited to the job. Sometimes we only find these things out after the position is conferred, but in this case there was a history of difficult behaviour that either was concealed from the University or which they chose to overlook. Now the whole deracialisation process is discredited, and people will continue to insist on “merit” (whch Phakeng has as an academic) when they mean “white”.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      She quite clearly lacked the competencies required for the performance of the role so she didn’t merit the appointment. Are you saying that anyone who would like the most capable candidates appointed to positions crucial to the future of our country are racist whites?

      • Loyiso Nongxa says:

        There is a rigorous process followed by universities, including UCT, in the appointment of Vice-Chancellors. It involves Senate, Institutional Forum, often from different stakeholders, and then a decision by the Council. The late Stuart Saunders, former VC of UCT, wrote on this topic and was satisfied with the UCT selection process. It is not clear to me how someone can claim that “She quite clearly lacked the competencies required of the role..” based on reading the article and….? . Does this mean these structures, and I assume the authors of the article were members of Senate, failed in discharging their responsibilities?

      • Bob Dubery says:

        What competencies was she clearly lacking? What did she lack that qualified, say, the last three VCs of Wits for that position?

        Where’s the checklist, the measure by which she is so clearly lacking?

        • Middle aged Mike says:

          Ignoring the question doesn’t make it away. The condition of her having a coach to help correct her ‘leadership style’ deficiencies is a tell. When you place someone in a very senior leadership position that would suggest that she had some other attributes that made up for that deficiency and worth the compromise. Before I write myself off as a racist I’d be interested to hear what you think those might have been.

  • Garth Gething says:

    She’ll be wearing a red beret soon!

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    Is anyone surprised at the demolition of what was a good university?

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      The University is most certainly not demolished: in fact, by several outside ranking processes, it is still the best University in Africa. The rot from the top has not percolated downward far enough to erode our research or teaching excellence; the executive team presently in place (with one exception) is highly capable and has steadied the ship very well indeed. So don’t spout off about things about which you evidently know very little? 😡

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