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