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By Getrude Makhafola

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UCT crisis: SRC, black academics back planned probe

UCT council on Saturday announced that an investigation led by a retired judge will get underway.


While the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) want an ombudsman to probe alleged governance failures, black academics backed an independent investigation at the troubled institution. The university hasn't had an ombudsman since the departure of Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa two years ago. She left after releasing a scathing report detailing complaints about vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng's alleged bullying, silencing, undermining others and unfair treatment. UCT, rated number one in Africa, has been thrown into the spotlight following allegations that council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama and Phakeng misled the senate on reasons for the sudden departure of Professor…

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While the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) want an ombudsman to probe alleged governance failures, black academics backed an independent investigation at the troubled institution.

The university hasn’t had an ombudsman since the departure of Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa two years ago. She left after releasing a scathing report detailing complaints about vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng‘s alleged bullying, silencing, undermining others and unfair treatment.

UCT, rated number one in Africa, has been thrown into the spotlight following allegations that council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama and Phakeng misled the senate on reasons for the sudden departure of Professor Lis Lange in May this year. Lange was deputy vice-chancellor for learning and teaching.

ALSO READ: UCT affirms support for vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng

The two reportedly told the senate that Lange’s departure was voluntary and based on personal reasons. However, Lange’s “explosive” letter was read out during a heated senate meeting on 30 September, in which she laid into Phakeng and Ngonyama, saying the two forced her out of her position.

‘Sabbatical cut short’

The crisis saw Phakeng cut short her sabbatical overseas that started on 1 September 2022 and was scheduled to end on 2 February next year. Ngonyama said she was “deeply concerned by any matters that impact negatively on the university’s reputation and academic credibility,” and hence Phakeng’s return to work.

Phakeng returned home last week after the stormy 30 September meeting.

Another meeting on Thursday last week saw council split on whether to appoint a retired judge or allow an internal investigation to ensue, according to a News24 report. An internal investigation was the final option during the meeting.

However, in her statement two days later, Ngonyama said she decided to call for an independent investigation, led by a retired judge, that also “takes into account the objectives of the internal investigation.”

NOW READ: UCT vice-chancellor apologises to LGBTQIA community over intersex lecture

‘Clandestine tackling of Lange’s letter’

In a no-holds-barred statement, the university’s Black Academic Caucus (BAC) slammed reports of instability at the Western Cape institution.

“From our understanding, the UCT executive is fully constituted of chief financial officer, chief operating officer, Registrar, the deputy Vice Chancellors and one Vice-Chancellor.

“The BAC regularly consults with UCT executives on various matters around transformation and institutional matters that negatively impact black staff members. Although BAC in most cases sharply disagrees with executive on various policies and procedures, at no point has the BAC felt the executive was incapacitated even during the times when two deputy vice-chancellors departed.”

The organisation described the institution as having “toxic environments”, with a Senate constituted of mostly whites and males who are “impatient with black female leaders.”

BAC added that it has, since 2021, questioned the “overreach” of Senate powers beyond those pronounced in the Higher Education Act.

“An example of this overreach is the abrogation of Senate guidelines by those who placed Lis Lange’s letter on the Senate’s MS Teams platform and read it out loud to those present.

“This was done despite the Senate guidelines that require that any documentation tabled at the meeting is sent to members of the Senate seven days before the meeting to enable all members to prepare. We also do not condone the clandestine way in which Lis Lange’s letter was introduced to the Senate.”

The caucus said it supported any investigation into issues affecting governance at UCT.

ALSO READ: MPs left fuming as Nzimande requests that NSF graft report be kept confidential

On the other hand, the university’s SRC said the appointment of another ombudsman would help resolve the crisis.

“The SRC has noted the very serious allegations on the university’s governance and wishes to call on the university to have an Ombuds structure in fruition to help in the processes of resolving such matters,” said secretary Cathy Mthejane.

DA wants Phakeng, Ngonyama to account in Parliament

On Monday, the Democratic Alliance (DA) said it has written to Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education chairperson Nompendulo Mkhatshwa to summon Phakeng and Ngonyama.

“We hope the portfolio committee chair regards this meeting as very crucial and urgently makes contact with the university to send through a report with documentary evidence on this matter.

“We note Ms Ngonyama’s U-turn on the call for an independent investigation to be conducted by a retired judge — which was initially requested by 14 members of the UCT Council — and we welcome such an approach so that a comprehensive report can ultimately be served before the portfolio committee.

“UCT is a leading higher education institution in South Africa and Africa at large. The university’s leadership needs to be beyond reproach,” said party MP Chantel King.

‘Nzimande concerned, awaits full report’

The Department of Higher Education and Training on Monday said there had not been any meetings with UCT, but had requested a report on the ongoing allegations.

“The department has not met the UCT management, however, the minister [Blade Nzimande] is concerned about the public reports on challenges within the university council.

“Following the submission of the report, the minister will determine the kind of support that the department will provide the university to ensure its stability,” said spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi.

‘I am stronger’

Taking to social media on Sunday, Phakeng tagged her post with #handsoffPhakeng, saying that she was receiving support from a “diversity of people.”

“Many are concerned about my wellbeing. Please know that I am stronger than I was during the 2017 & 2020 media attacks when suicide was a real possibility. I’ve been on treatment since. Am (sic) much stronger now. I may not be able to respond to all your messages but please note that I value them. Thanks for your love and support,” she posted on Twitter.

In a longer post on Facebook, Phakeng wrote: “I remain committed to UCT’s sustainable future which can never happen without transformation and excellence being interdependent. UCT is a public institution, it belongs to all of us and we must make sure that good ethical leadership prevails.”

NOW READ: Higher education plans remind us equality is a myth in SA

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