The Council of the University of Cape Town has opted to suspend vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng, amid an ongoing investigation into UCT governance and additional complaints against Phakeng.
UCT Vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng will be suspended by the university Council pending disciplinary action.
Daily Maverick understands that the extraordinary decision was taken by the Council after the body consulted with two of South Africa’s leading experts on labour law – who confirmed that the university would have a prima facie case of misconduct against Phakeng.
Following this consultation, Phakeng was given the option of stepping down quietly with a pay-out. Daily Maverick understands that negotiation fell apart however with Phakeng withdrawing from the talks.
Suspension is the culmination of months of tension
Phakeng’s suspension comes after almost five months of growing conflict – following an explosive meeting of the UCT Senate in late September 2022, with a Daily Maverick expose into the campus governance crisis being published a few days later.
Read on Daily Maverick: Dark days: Accusations of capture and governance instability rock UCT
Dark days: Accusations of capture and governance instability rock UCT
The Daily Maverick investigation, conducted over six months last year, revealed a culture of secrecy and intimidation taking root at the university under the leadership of VC Phakeng and UCT Council Chair Babalwa Ngonyama – who have since fallen out.
Amid a string of departures from senior administrative staff, the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) – reportedly very uncommon for universities – appeared to have become standard practice at UCT.
At the UCT Senate meeting on 30 September 2022, one of these departures took centre stage. A letter from former deputy vice-chancellor Lis Lange was read out, in which Lange contradicted the account of her exit given to the Senate and wrote that she had effectively been forced out of her position at Phakeng’s behest.
In combination, the Senate meeting and the Daily Maverick reporting provided a challenge too substantial to be ignored – coming, as they did, on the back of a public complaint against Phakeng made by former UCT ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa in 2020.
Makamandela-Mguqulwa reported that 37 individuals had approached her with bullying concerns about Phakeng, to which the ombud added her own voice.
Divisions in UCT Council delay process
After the allegations against Phakeng and Ngonyama were made public, pressure mounted – including from the UCT Academics’ Union – against the UCT Council to take action.
But a deeply divided Council could not reach consensus after a series of acrimonious and shambolic meetings, at which Phakeng and Ngonyama themselves initially refused to recuse themselves from votes considering an investigation into their own conduct.
It was only in February 2023 that the Council was able to confirm the launch of an investigation into the UCT governance concerns, in the form of a four-member panel chaired by retired judge Lex Mpati.
That investigation, which is ongoing, is tasked with matters including investigating the circumstances around Lis Lange’s departure and all issues related to executive relationships and executive departures.
Daily Maverick understands that the reason why it was considered necessary to suspend Phakeng despite the fact that the investigation has not completed its work is because nine additional complaints were brought against the VC since the investigation was agreed upon.
Those complaints include the fact that there have been two further resignations of top members of the UCT leadership team – Registrar Royston Pillay and COO Reno Morar, together with the loss of former HR Head Miriam Hoosain to Stellenbosch – and additional charges related to Phakeng’s social media activity over the last few months.
A particularly controversial tweet posted by Phakeng on January 3, 2023 saw Phakeng lying in grass apparently about to fire an AK-47.
Although Phakeng’s social media conduct had long been a concern, it was apparently felt to be additionally disturbing that she appeared to have doubled down on posting controversial material since the allegations against her surfaced.
Daily Maverick understands that the decision to suspend Phakeng was taken near unanimously by the UCT Council, with only a few members abstaining or voting against it. DM