UCT ombud Makamandela-Mguqulwa 'committed to fairness, transparency'
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Gender and transformation expert Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, the resilient UCT ombud, is a no-nonsense mother of three from Qoboqobo village in the Eastern Cape, who took on the university bigwigs and council members when they tried to suppress her damning report on goings-on at the institution concerning vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
Makamandela-Mguqulwa said even under intense pressure from Phakeng, who went to court to censor the ombud’s report before withdrawing, while the former council chairperson Sipho Pityana asked her to amend it, she was sustained by the inspiring words of her 78-year-old mom Nomonde Makamandela.
The pressure remains to censor her report but Makamandela-Mguqulwa, who contributed to gender and sexual harassment policies at UCT, said she is committed to fairness and transparency.
“I refused! My mom always tells us to ‘be truthful until death, because the truth will set you free’, and it is something I live with and try to instill in our three girls,” said Makamandela-Mguqulwa, who had originally planned on a career in journalism.
“My first love was journalism, when they are involved, things would move,” said the former pupil of St Matthews High School for girls in Keiskammahoek.
After matriculating at Mzomtsha High School, she applied to study law at UCT and journalism at Rhodes.
“I was not as excited about being accepted by UCT and I went to Rhodes but there was an administrative mistake, they took more students than they could teach, so they said whoever had the fees, would be accepted.
“Children from rich families got in, some of us left and fortunately, UCT had accepted me for law,” she said.
But the law class was full, so Makamandela-Mguqulwa, 51, enrolled for a social sciences degree, she completed a higher diploma in education which led to a six-month teaching stint at the University of Western Cape.
While a student, she worked at the Institute for Democratic Alternatives in SA, which had a vacancy for a gender officer on the Project Vote programme.
“I applied and got it, working on voter education, and as gender officer one of the tasks I cherish to this day was interviewing 118 women in Parliament. I spoke to every women in Parliament, Ma Sisulu, Jenny Schreiner, Sheila Camerer, Naledi Pandor etc, it was inspiring, and then afterwards they also formed the Parliamentary omen’s Group (PWG), which deliberated on programmes to make sure that they do not forget the communities, how they can mentor young girls, and we started a big sister programme but funding dried up,” she said.
“To this day I suspect that one of the women from the PWG took the idea and shared it with the private sector, not long after the Cell C Take a Girl Child to work was unveiled, pretty much with the same ethos as we discussed. But there was no problem we liked to see it happening,” she said.
Afterwards, she worked as chapter manager of the Forum for African Women Educationalists - South Africa, which was based at UCT thanks to office space made available by former vice-chancellor Mamphela Ramphele.
This put her in touch with academics like Pandor, Vuyisa Tanga, Nasima Badsha and Cheryl de la Rey.
Next in her journey was gender training on behalf of a company called Development Dynamics, before joining the faculty of health sciences at UCT as ombud in 2003, set up as a consequence of Truth and Reconciliation Hearings for medics to discuss practices under apartheid.
One of her success stories was helping to create the new charter replacing what was known as the Hippocrates Oath, ensuring that the commitment by medics was relevant locally.
On the move, she joined PetroSA as change manager, spending four years before seeing the vacancy for an ombud at UCT. She got the job.
Makamandela-Mguqulwa said the Office of the Ombud was established in 2010 to provide a safe space where people could air their concerns and discuss ways of addressing them.
She said an ombud is an impartial and independent resource and voice that assists the university to be a responsive institution, to foster values and ethical behaviour through fair practice, equity, equality of opportunity and respect while also acting as an early warning system.
“But this was the first time that the university council tried to stop a report. I write a report, give it to the council chair, who gives it to the vice-chancellor to discuss with the executive and they respond. I always am available for points on clarity. Once during the leadership of Dr Max Price, he was not happy with my tone in the report, interestingly, it was about the bullying policy, and I have been asking for seven years the same
“He said that it makes us look bad. I said, you are bad. He asked me to rephrase but I said no, it stays there. Price was open to feedback and respected the purpose and independence of the office,” she said.
With less than six months remaining on her term, she burst into the news last month following claims in her report that UCT is a campus wracked with fear with 663 individuals coming forward with complaints about issues related to the university, while 37 related to the alleged abusive conduct of the vice-chancellor where people felt bullied, silenced, undermined, rebuked and/or treated unfairly.
More people have come forward with claims against the vice-chancellor since the furore broke.
It’s the first time, however, that her office has come under media scrutiny.
“I am only interested in the truth, this is not about me, but the complaints made by individuals on campus not only against the vice-chancellor but related to issues at university level,” she said.
But she keeps a calm head helped by her role as a facilitator steering potentially charged conversations, rethinking transformation conversation and hosting a Tutu Foundation Conversation on social justice defined.
Respected in her profession, she is a member of the International Outreach Committee (IOC) of the International Ombudsman Association, a member organisation that establishes professional standards for organisational ombudsman worldwide for whom she also serves as the IOC Africa regional chairperson. By invitation, she coaches and assesses mediators for mediation training at a private sector provider Conflict Dynamics.
Makamandela-Mguqulwa said she was completing her law studies through Unisa and focused on being a good mom, instilling values around truth and honesty to her children aged 19, 13 and 11.
Asked if she was the boss at their home in Kleinbosch, she burst out laughing: “My husband is very supportive. Every two years I had to attend an ombud conference in the US, his self-employed status helps us with the children. I love my kids, but they love their father more,” she said.
Will her law degree equip her for service elsewhere, I asked, for example a future Public Protector?
Again, she laughed: “Thuli Madonsela told me I must finish my studies and avail myself for something like this if available in the future.”
But her journalism dream still burns. “I have been asked many times over to not leave UCT without producing written work on the Office of the Ombud,” she said. As her mom says, the truth will always come out.
* Requests for interviews were
sent to UCT vice-chancellor
Mamokgethi Phakeng and
council chairperson Babalwa
Ngonyama to address their
efforts to censor the report of
UCT spokesperson Elijah
Moholola said the council,
under Ngonyama, the new
chairperson who was part of
the same team that attempted
to muzzle the report under
predecessor Sipho Pityana,
is aware of the report of the
Ombud for 2019 and the
related issues that have been
reported in the media.
“There is also an
appreciation of the concerns
of UCT stakeholders.These
important matters are receiving
the necessary attention of the
the Council, who are working
to address and resolve the
Phakeng declined requests
for interviews at this time.
“She is unable to attend to
this at the moment.
“She will consider it as
soon as she finds a moment
to do so in the next few days
and thereafter we will revert,”