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UCT: Knives Are Out For VC Mamokgethi Phakeng Amid Claims Of Bullying and Censorship

CHARLES MOLELE

THE knives are out for University of Cape Town’s vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, following an explosive report by the institution’s Ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, which contains serious allegations about her autocratic management and leadership style.  

Inside Education has been reliably told that in the midst of it all, there are behind-the-scenes moves and political machinations to get rid of Phakeng before her term ends in the next two years.

Several sources at UCT told Inside Education that there is a powerful faction within management and the previous university Council aligned to the Democratic Alliance (DA), the City of Cape Town and the Premier’s Office, which has been leading a campaign to remove Phakeng from her VC post, allegedly for ‘dumbing down’ standards at one of the top-rated universities in the world.

“It’s bizarre, don’t you think? They claim that under professor Phakeng, UCT continues to decline and that standards are dropping, yet we are number one on all five world rankings simultaneously,” said a senior university official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“They want to chase her out of the institution in order to maintain the status quo because they fear her transformation agenda. Since she came into office, 10 vacancies in the 23-member Leadership Lekgotla have been filled by black Africans. They quibble in their secret corners that how can you have 80% transformation rate at this historically white institution?”

Another source told Inside Education: “She [Makamandela-Mguqulwa] is ‘ungovernable’, was used by a DA-led faction and had an axe to grind with the VC. She met with the VC at least three times in the past few months. She said absolutely nothing about the alleged bullying and intimidation of staff and now at the end of her term and that of the Council, she raises all these dangerous and untested allegations.”

“It is important to remember that both the legal opinion sought by the Council and the VC found her report to have ‘abused her office in the most flagrant manner, and acted in violation of the principles that govern her office and indeed every known basic principle of natural justice’.”

Makamandela-Mguqulwa’s report has accused Phakeng of being a bully who silenced professionals on campus and destroyed careers.

According to this report, not a single one of those who complained wanted the Ombud to approach the VC as they feared retaliation.

“During this reporting period a number of work-related complaints came to me about professional interactions with the VC where people felt bullied, silenced, undermined, rebuked and/or treated unfairly,” according to Makamandela-Mguqulwa.

“Their pain was visible. Some affected bystanders also came to express fear and told me how they were impacted individually by different incidents. My usual approach is to be guided by the visitor on what they want to achieve by bringing the issue to my attention.”

On Monday evening, UCT announced the names of the new council members – Babalwa Ngonyama was elected as the new chairperson of the Council, and Nazeema Mohamed as the deputy chairperson.

Other new Council members include Professor Ntobeko Ntusi (Senate-elected Council member), Sihle Lonzi (student member), Zama Khanyile (chair of the University Finance Committee) as well as Sheila Barsel and Dianna Yach.

The new council met for the first time on Saturday but it is unclear if they dealt with the Ombud’s report.

One of the first issues that the new UCT Council has to deal with is the fallout from the scathing report by Makamandela-Mguqulwa.

Meanwhile, Phakeng and the council have already sought legal opinions on whether to accept the report or not.

The legal opinion sought by Council found that the ‘Message from the Ombud’ exceeded the powers, authority and mandate of the TOR, and the reporting requirements of the job description, and breached the foundational principles of the office of the Ombud.

The Ombud has no power to make such pronouncements, according to the legal opinion sought by the outgoing university Council.

On the other hand, a legal opinion sought by the VC Phakeng found that the allegations raised by the Ombud were uncharacteristically vague and unsubstantiated.

“The ombud has turned the office into a complainant and judge in her own cause. The persons and office bearers against whom the allegations are made were never notified of the allegations, nor were they allowed an opportunity to be heard before the report was compiled,” according to the legal opinion sought by Phakeng.

“By cloaking her own untested personal grievances in the form of a formal report of the office, the Ombud has abused her office in the most flagrant manner, and acted in violation of the principles that govern her office and indeed every known basic principle of natural justice. The disproportionate prominence given to the untested allegations in the report suggests mala fides on the part of the Ombud. This abuse of office and disregard for the law is unprecedented, brazen, and dangerous.”

Attempts to get comments from Makamandela-Mguqulwa and Phakeng were unsuccessful at the time of going to press.

UCT spokesman Elijah Moholola declined to answer specific questions about the alleged DA-led campaign to remove Phakeng, including damning Ombud’s allegations against the VC, saying the old council was handling the matter.

(Compiled by Inside Education staff)

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