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By Getrude Makhafola

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‘Lies, abuse of power’: Report fingers Phakeng and Ngonyama in UCT crisis

Academics and managers left UCT in droves during Phakeng and Ngonyama's tenures.


An independent panel report into the governance crisis that engulfed the University of Cape Town (UCT) blames former top officials Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng and Babalwa Ngonyama, describing them as having gone “rogue” during their tenure.

Phakeng was UCT vice-chancellor and Ngonyama chairperson of council when the damning allegations erupted last year.

The probe, led by retired Judge Lex Mpati, found the duo were dishonest and misled the institution regarding the departure of the head of teaching and learning Professor Lis Lange.

Lange’s contentious departure added to the damning 2020 UCT ombudsman’s report that had rocked the institution for months,

In January, the council appointed the panel to investigate the root of the governance problems.

‘Race-baiting, unprofessional behaviour’

Phakeng, a mathematics professor, was appointed VC in 2018. Council was chaired by Sipho Pityana at the time.

The report noted Pityana pushed for her appointment, despite misgivings about her “unprofessional behaviour” by others, including former VC Max Price.

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Pityana suggested the appointment of a mentor to assist Phakeng in her new position, promising to monitor her closely himself.

However, his evidence to the Mpati probe indicated a total failure to follow through with the promises.

“As Pityana testified, she (Phakeng) failed to meet her promises, and her unprofessional behaviour continued.

“Pityana observed that she abused her power by using her position to settle scores.

“The most troubling aspect of her leadership was the divisive way she used race and racial difference as a weapon in her interaction with almost everyone in UCT, regardless of their position.

Her “crass” obsession with race, as Pityana described it, became worse, not better, with time.

“It became increasingly difficult for leaders and staff to attend meetings with her as she tolerated no disagreement and caused distress to those affected,” read the report.

Resignations, suspensions

Several academics and managers left UCT during the 2018-2022 tumultuous years.

Apart from Lange, the following are some of the people who walked out under Phakeng’s leadership:

  • Law Professor Loretta Feris was “pushed out” as tensions between herself and Phakeng and Ngonyama raged on.
  • COO Dr Reno Morar − He testified that he left because of the deteriorating working environment that “became toxic and untrustworthy, and psychologically unsafe” to work in.
  • Dr Russel Ally − He was approached by Phakeng and was earmarked for Feris’ post, but later informed him that Ngonyama favoured another academic. Ngonyama denied this when Ally sought answers from her. He resigned over the “two conflicting and contradictory accounts.”
  • Registrar Royston Pillay − He told the panel his resignation was a form of protest against the deteriorated governance and the “intolerable, un-collegial and accusatory nature of the relationship with Phakeng.” The panel found UCT administration was in tatters after his departure.

In her testimony to the panel, Phakeng confirmed she had not been honest with Ally when she told him Ngonyama had decided to exclude him, saying it was her decision and Ngonyama supported her.

Orchestration of Lange’s departure

The chips began to fall when the circumstances behind Lange’s forced exit and the subsequent secret agreement she was made to sign came to the fore.

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According to the report, in 2020, Lange realised she needed help to manage her tumulous relationship with Phakeng.

She sought help from the director of HR, who recommended a coach.

“This is a service HR afforded to its senior executives. The focus of the support from Lange’s coach was for her to learn to stand her ground against the VC’s “constant aggression”. Other members of UCT also used this facility to cope with Phakeng’s abuse,” reads the report.

During a meeting in 2021 held to improve relations between executives, Ngonyama told transformation deputy vice-chancellor Martin Hall she intended to terminate Lange’s position prematurely while beginning the process of renewing Phakeng’s term of office for a further five years.

Hall testified that Ngonyama elaborated on the unworkable relationship between Lange and Phakeng, and Ngonyama insisted Lange would have to leave.

It emerged that Phakeng thought Lange wanted to replace her as VC, even though Lange indicated that she wanted to serve another term as teaching and education head.

Lange forced out

In January 2022, Ngonyama held a meeting with Lange, where she informed her she would have to leave.

This left Lange surprised, and she immediately sought the services of a lawyer to protect her rights.

Realising the further deterioration in relations with Phakeng, Lange eventually agreed to sign Ngonyama’s non-disclosure agreement and leave UCT.

Ngonyama had the terms for Lange’s departure and agreement finished ahead of the March 2022 senate meeting expected to endorse Phakeng for a second term.

However, the Lange issue was withheld from the Senate. The plan was to get Phakeng a second term first, the probe found.

Phakeng later announced Lange’s departure at an exco meeting in April 2022. The following month, a UCT press release from her office formally announced Lange “would not be seeking renewal of her appointment at UCT.”

‘Rogue office bearers’

The “blatant lie” was repeated at council and senate meetings, the panel said.

Testimonies and submitted evidence showed Phakeng and Ngonyama “had gone rogue”.

“With the two most senior office bearers in UCT having effectively gone rogue, other members of exco began to plan their departures. By December 2022, Harrison was the only member of the exco from July 2020, who had not resigned.”

“To conclude that Ngonyama and Phakeng’s conduct during this period amounted to a governance failure would be an understatement. In an attempt to shield themselves from accountability, they undermined the policies and procedures of UCT.

“Had it not been for the fact that half of the members of council and most in senate acted to protect UCT from their machinations, the consequences could have been calamitous,” the panel said.

Ngonyama did not testify before the panel.

She and Phakeng were found to have degraded and misused UCT HR to advance their interests.

Furthermore, they were found to have breached the council’s code of conduct by not adhering to their duties.

The former VC, who got a golden handshake before leaving in March this year, was found to have repeatedly “conducted herself unprofessionally by engaging in activities prohibited in the UCT workplace, including using threats, intimidation, ethnic slurs, personal insults and also posting racially offensive material on social media”.

While no direct sanction was made against Phakeng, the panel recommended Ngonyama be reported to regulatory authorities for failing in her fiduciary duties.

The institution was directed to apologise in writing to all complainants and those who suffered the bullying and intimidation under Phakeng.

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