One-sided, unverified and untested is how former UCT council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama has described a report by the independent panel chaired by retired Supreme Court of Appeal president Judge Lex Mpati, which she said has led to the unlawful damage and defamation inflicted upon her dignity, reputation and character.
Ngonyama, who was according to the report “placing” UCT at risk, said the panel denied her the right to respond to allegations levelled against her.
The long-awaited report which was made public by the university last week recommended that Ngonyama be reported to the appropriate regulatory authorities for “failing to perform her fiduciary duty to UCT”.
The alleged failure in her fiduciary duty included not holding former vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng to account following complaints against her in an Ombud Report and necessary steps to terminate her contract.
According to the panel, UCT’s governance crisis was due to Ngonyama and Phakeng’s conduct.
Among other things, they are alleged to have breached the council’s code of conduct and degraded HR function.
In several cases, according to the report, Ngonyama also had a direct role in the resignations of academics including Professor Loretta Feris and teaching deputy vice-chancellor Professor Lis Lange.
“Her conduct, which placed UCT at risk, included, but was not limited to, initiating the termination of Lange’s contract without having the authority to do so, misleading council and the senate regarding the circumstances of Lange’s departure, attending and voting at a special council meeting despite having a conflict of interest and attempting to prevent the appointment of an independent panel to investigate her conduct by subverting the proper functioning of council,” the report said.
“The HR function was degraded and misused by the VC and the chairperson of council (Ngonyama) to advance their own interests, instead of UCT’s. It was enlisted to terminate the contracts of senior executives unfairly, placing UCT at risk. There were also reports of instances where appointments appear to have been made, and performance awards apparently granted, which were undeserved,” it said.
Ngonyama’s response to the findings and recommendation was that a legal review process was pending in the Western Cape High Court to challenge the lawfulness, fairness of the process and the nature and extent of the panel’s powers.
She expressed that she was alarmed that the panel chose to release the final report while the court review process was pending.
“I strongly deny the allegations made against me in the report which is the very reason that I have challenged the basis of the findings in the legal review process. They are one-sided, unverified and untested, leading to the unlawful damage and defamation inflicted upon my dignity, reputation and character, which is profound. I eagerly anticipate the resolution of the legal review process in the Western Cape High Court,” she said.
Ngonyama said while the panel was appointed to investigate broader governance issues at UCT, the process was “morphed to target a few individuals”.
“It is one thing to focus on improving governance at UCT, it is a completely different matter to use the process to lay blame. I remain aggrieved by the manner the panel chose to proceed with the process, without providing me the opportunity to test the evidence against me, something which conflicts with the basic tenet of procedural fairness.
As part of the process, I requested that I be furnished with the statements of the individuals beforehand and be afforded an adequate opportunity to address them. I also requested that I be allowed to cross-examine the witnesses as part of testing the allegations against me. I was not afforded that courtesy.
“This denied me an opportunity to exercise my right, prepare for, provide input and reply during the panel’s investigation. Despite repeated offers and requests to participate in the process and that a fair and lawful process be followed, I was ultimately refused an opportunity to participate in the investigation,” Ngonyama said.
She believes the panel’s process was unlawful and infringed on her right to dignity and to be heard in a fair, transparent and impartial process.
However, the panel’s report states that in each case, implicated persons were informed of these rights before being invited to submit a written statement and to testify at a hearing.
“Witnesses against whom adverse allegations were made, were invited specifically to provide statements.
They were provided with a summary of the allegations to which they were required to respond. Where they appeared reluctant to do so they were put on terms.
“In only one (Ngonyama’s) case where serious allegations had been made, did the witness not appear, and adverse findings were made against her in the Interim Report to Council on 18 May 2023.
“She has since instituted review proceedings against UCT and the panel in the high court.”