UCT hits back at ‘spurious claims’

UCT has been ranked in top position in Africa for sport science. Picture: UCT Facebook

UCT has been ranked in top position in Africa for sport science. Picture: UCT Facebook

Published Oct 9, 2022


Johannesburg - The UCT has hit back at “spurious claims” against its leadership amid claims of a full-on race war between white academics wanting the old university back and black staff demanding transformation.

Vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng and council chair Babalwa Ngonyama have come under siege in the media following manufactured claims that they had misled the council concerning the departure of deputy vice-chancellor Lis Lange at South Africa’s top university.

Responding to a report by the Daily Maverick as a “litany of claims that are either incorrect, misleading or unethical”, UCT said the allegations were either addressed by the university in its initial response but not reflected in the article or not put to UCT at all for a response before publication.

UCT issued a statement on Friday disputing several inaccuracies in the report, which also listed the names of several staff members with strong links to UCT but whom they denied had been canvassed for the report.

The Black Academic Caucus labelled it “sensational reporting” saying that there was no crisis but a classic case of “chickens coming home to roost.”

UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency/ANA

“The BAC does not see what is special about the matter of the erstwhile DVC of Teaching and Learning. Why should she and her fellow white travellers want to drag everyone into her so-called Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA)? She never took the university community into confidence when she signed the NDA,” it said in a statement, adding that this was indicative of the untransformed nature of UCT systems and subtle racism.

When a black counterpart of Lange’s, the former DVC: Transformation Professor Loretta Feris, left in January 2022, the caucus noted that “UCT never went into crisis” and that the Senate, made up of around 400, almost 60% white individuals, had not tabled a motion to ask why she left. Feris had been longer at UCT than Lange.

The Caucus accused Senate of flouting its governance procedures by “smuggling a letter” into a meeting, while normal protocol was for such submissions ought to have been submitted seven days earlier.

Highlighting the betrayal and open racial tension playing out at UCT, the letter was read out to Senate by Professor Tom Moultrie in breach of protocol, while Acting Chair Professor Sue Harrison did not attempt to stop him.

Harrison, the stand-in for Phakeng as Acting Vice-Chancellor, allegedly used the opportunity as one academic suggested “to stab her boss in the back”.

“There is a clear demonstration of anti-transformation and reform par excellence,” said the caucus, adding that they called for amendments in 2019 to bring Senate in line with the Higher Education Act but the UCT executive arrogantly ignored them.

This was not the first attack on Phakeng since her announcement in August that she was going abroad on sabbatical. Last month detractors claimed that she was not eligible for a sabbatical, despite UCT policies entitling her to one.

This week as the current race-motivated crisis erupted, Phakeng announced that she would be ending her five-month sabbatical, returning ahead of the scheduled February 2023 return.

Some Senate and Council members are furious about how the council chair was treated at the Senate meeting when Harrison broke protocols and allowed the divulging of details of the letter as one academic described with the “blessing of the Old White Boys Club”.

On Wednesday, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation, Professor Elelwani Ramugondo, said in a leaked letter to Ngonyama that she was concerned about events at the Senate meeting on 30 September 2022, where the item concerning Lange’s exit was tabled irregularly.

“I was left surprised like everyone else in the Senate about the letter from Associate Professor Lis Lange in response to the Chair of Council’s written response to the resolution of Senate. I was kept ignorant about the letter, and it is possible that others in the Executive might have been in the know. As a new member of the Executive and given that issues of collegiality and trust had been raised in the past, and against the Vice Chancellor, it was my hope that in her absence, the rest of us would model exemplary conduct in this regard.”

Reflecting the current racial tension on campus, Ramugondo said she was concerned about “which voices are amplified, and which ones are diminished at UCT”.

“What I saw instead, was a stark example of how racialised white people continue to have their voices amplified, while racialised black people, especially Africans, have their voices diminished.”

“This amplification of a white voice, from someone who is not even a Senate member, against that of a black voice, from someone, an African, with full rights as a Senate member becomes even stark, given that current demographic representation at Senate sits at 11% African, and 57% White,” she added.

On Friday in another twist, a group of 13 UCT council members, only one African Professor Ntobeko Ntusi, head of medicine and Groote Schuur Hospital, said in a statement that a meeting by the council on Thursday was “irregular” and "flawed". However, the statement did not complain about the irregular governance breach by Senate.

At the meeting efforts to have an independent inquiry, headed by a retired judge, failed when deputy council chair Pheladi Gwangwa exercised her democratic right and voted in favour of a motion for Council to set up a sub-committee to probe circumstances around the Senate meeting of 30 September. This was after two motions were put up and each received 14 votes. The 13 are threatening to go to court “to fight for a white academic while blacks at UCT can have their rights trampled on,” said a council member.

However, Gwangwa said in a statement, that the council meeting was "robust”, and "cordial" and that council would set up a sub-committee to probe governance and procedural matters relating to the Senate meeting of 30 September.

A council member said Ngonyama told them that 30 minutes before the Senate meeting, she received a note from the Acting chair of the Senate Professor Harrison, informing her of the note from Lange.

Professor Harrison said that Lange that based on the rules of the Senate, the Chair of the Senate could not allow the document to be allowed into the Senate at the late stage at which it was received, with no prior notice.”

But the council member said Harrison allowed extensive debate of the contents of Lange's tabled letter, and as a result, Ngonyama’s written responses were ignored.

Ngonyama was aggrieved that in her absence, and without any censure from the Acting Chair, she was repeatedly branded as a "liar".

The council member said Ngonyama was upset that the Lange letter was deemed admissible and true by members of the Senate, even before an investigation or talk of the formation of a subcommittee was proposed.

Negotiations are currently underway to broker peace and end the impasse with Ngonyama expected to announce that Council will agree to a retired judge probing the allegations.- © Higher Education Media Services