I am grateful for those who stood up to speak truth, says former UCT Ombud
The recently departed guardian of the moral conscience of UCT, fearless ombudsman Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, has cleared out her office with a whimper after the acrimony which marked the past two years of her tenure.
She says, however, the lessons she learnt have ramifications for truth and freedom of expression on campuses way beyond UCT, to ensure that people have a solutions-driven outlet for their challenges without fear of repercussions – as at UCT.
Her decade at UCT ended on December 31 as the university conveniently ran down the clock on her term without addressing the bullying complaints against the vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng in her 2019 Ombud report.
The university also muzzled the Ombud via a cooked-up disciplinary process lapse without addressing any of the frivolous charges put to her in September. She had been left hanging, so to speak.
Makamandela-Mguqulwa, however, believes the issues had been depicted unfairly as a clash between her and the vice-chancellor over the allegations by 37 academics and staff members against UCT head.
“I have served ten years as Ombud at UCT and it would be unfair to overly focus on the last two over the many good years of experience as Ombud, learning, supporting and feeling supported. I am especially grateful to my visitors without whom the office has no value,” she said.
Makamandela-Mguqulwa said she was indebted to The Most Reverend, Archbishop Ndungane, her first line manager, who she says understood the challenges of the office.
“I am grateful to his wisdom and guidance, and also continue to appreciate former deputy council chair Debbie Budlender for her support and willingness to stand for the truth.
“I will always remember former vice-chancellor Dr Max Price for being open to an unfamiliar approach and finding respectful ways to voice concerns where they existed. I am grateful for the people who stood up to speak truth and called out lack of accountability from self-serving leadership who cannot look beyond immediate interests.
“Dr Birgit Taylor with whom I worked in the office for 8 years has been a pillar of strength,” she added.
The no-nonsense mother of three from Qoboqobo village in the Eastern Cape reckons her successor must stand firm against interference to ensure that the office of the Ombud remains independent, impartial, and a protected space for the university community.
Given her own battles, this advice seems well-intended but a dream as Makamandela-Mguqulwa came under pressure – first from Phakeng, who went to court to try to censor the report before withdrawing; while the former council chairperson Sipho Pityana also asked her to amend the report; while his successor Babalwa Ngonyama met with her several times asking her to doctor the report by removing references to the bullying vice-chancellor.
“I refused! My 78-year-old mom Nomonde Makamandela always told us to ‘be truthful until death, because the truth will set you free’, and it is something I live with and try to instil in our three girls,” said the gender and transformation expert.
The former St Matthews High School for Girls pupil in Keiskammahoek, who wanted to become a journalist, said UCT’s stance on the bullying sends a chilling message to the university community, that certain things are “unsayable” and it was evident that the council and the executive would stop at nothing to “deal” with complainants.
“The 37 complaints are still not dealt with and will not be dealt with as I was told by the chairperson. Instead, council came up with charges of misconduct that they never met with me to communicate. I never had an opportunity to meet and present my report or answer questions this council may have. Instead, they plotted to oust me, suspend, change my role through taking away contracted privileges such as legal costs.
“The council was the first to disparage my office, never gave me their time of the day let alone responding to two letters that required their immediate leadership and attention as a governance body. Instead, they took sides by refusing to hold the VC accountable.
“They told me this, and still charged me for repeating it. Council watched and contributed to my being linked to some racist plots, being anti-transformation, anti-black and not supporting a black woman. Unfortunately, I am a black woman, I participated and continued to contribute in the UCT’s transformation journey.
“However, my brief as Ombud is not to play ‘sister-sister’ at the expense of the fundamental standards of my work. Council wanted me to leave the university prematurely through suspension as a way of silencing me, since the way in which I do the work has become problematic for them. This cannot change overnight. The previous council noted my report, the myth that the report did not go to council is not true,” she said.
“That I acted out of mandate is also not true, I have always published my reports. That I had a fallout with the Vice Chancellor is not only a lie but an attempt to discredit my work. Bullying people has nothing to do with the Ombud. The fallout could be giving unflattering feedback which is what Ombud’s do. Ombud’s are no praise singers.”
Makamandela-Mguqulwa said it was disappointing for the council to sing the VC’s praises at a time when there are allegations of people being bullied by her.
“To me, this is no different to a School Governing Body that is told about a principal that rapes a staff member and then the SGB starts to talk about some of the things the principal achieved, the library, the fence, the computer room etc, none of which give licence to abuse others. This carte blanche approach is dangerous and shows how far things can go where there is no accountability. The 37 and more victims of bullying are on their own.”
“I would not have known about the UCT VC bullying if it was not for people coming to complain about it and so far, nobody ever said the bullying allegations are not true, from the previous council to this council.”
Makamandela-Mguqulwa insists she does not write emotional reports as she is conflict competent and has a duty to give honest feedback.
“If giving honest and due feedback is a fallout to the VC then it means she must have had a fallout with Pityana and (former council member Shirley) Zinn too, whose (pink) report is more detailed than mine. I had no knowledge that this report existed until it was out in the open. Yet, this council charges me for leaking council documents. Where and how would I access them without being a member of council? It is unfortunate that the university’s image is being protected at the expense of real violent and harmful experiences of its staff, who seem voiceless in this situation. Council should show care and concern for all university people, not just the Vice Chancellor or the university image.”
Makamandela-Mguqulwa believes council’s response to her report by charging her with misconduct, changing the terms of employment to ordinary staff and initially refusing to cover legal costs led to UCT alumnus, ordinary staff members, concerned members of the public and some funders here and abroad offering to cover legal costs should this be necessary.
“People knew it was not about me but the reported bullying complaints.”
She said her role as Ombud was to protect others from abuse, violation of rights, unfairness by the bureaucracy of the institution the Ombud services.
Looking back on some of the cases she has dealt with, Makamandela-Mguqulwa, said recalled one against a gentleman suspected of stealing a laptop, but university policies and basic human rights were flouted.
“He was imprisoned and severely traumatised thereafter. Another is of an academic who came from outside SA who did not receive support to bring her children over, yet later was informed by a colleague that he was supported to bring his pets. My mentor, Mary Rowe – former MIT Ombud of 43 years – calls Ombuds ‘visible invisibles’. We recommend, and people take and implement the recommendations often forgetting that we were ever involved, and it is okay,” she stated.
Black Academic Caucus secretary Tiri Chonyaka, said the caucus supports an independent Ombud office which must be free from the UCT executive management as well as from the UCT Council functionaries.
“In terms of governance the office of the Ombud must be accountable to the UCT Council but the functions of the office of the Ombud must remain independent of even the actions of council.”
Questions sent to UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola and copied to the vice-chancellor regarding the bullying claims against her and what action has been taken against the 37 complaints were unanswered.
Moholola said following its last meeting of the year on December 5, the council thanked the Ombud for her years of service in this role and wished her well in her future endeavours.
“Council remains committed to the Office of the Ombud,” said Moholola.
To this end, added Moholola, the council had engaged former University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Professor Ihron Rensburg as advisor on how best to ensure the effectiveness of the office of Ombud as the process of recruiting a new Ombud commences.
“Work continues on the development of the bullying policy and constituencies are being consulted.”
Makamandela-Mguqulwa plans to work with the International Ombudsman Association and edge towards her journalism roots, writing articles with her mentor, the veteran Ombud Mary Rowe, who is always driven by the truth.
“When your default position in life is telling the truth at all times, you have nothing to remember, your facts remain the same, the work becomes easier, while others rewrite history to discredit the gains and question credibility. No courage is required to do that because truth cannot be sold for anything, in my book, or shall I say, my mother’s book.”
* Edwin Naidu is an experienced journalist who writes passionately about tertiary education and justice.