Axed Professor Loretta Feris was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Transformation with effect from 1 January 2017. Picture: gnhre.org
Axed Professor Loretta Feris was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Transformation with effect from 1 January 2017. Picture: gnhre.org

Another race row brewing at UCT

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Apr 4, 2021

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Another race-charged row is brewing at the University of Cape Town over the axing of a black woman in charge of transformation only to be replaced by a 72-year-old retired ‘white saviour’ on a R2-million salary package at a time when academics, staff and unions have been ordered to make cut-backs.

Deputy vice-chancellor: Transformation, Professor Loretta Feris was removed and replaced with British historical archaeologist Professor Martin Hall, who served in a variety of roles at UCT between 1983 and 2008, assumed duties as acting deputy Vice-Chancellor: Transformation on 1 April, prompting an uproar on campus.

An academic, speaking on condition of anonymity because she fears reprisals, has alleged that Feris has been made a scapegoat for vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s 2020 annus horribilis in which she (Phakeng) came under fire over bullying allegations, lack of integrity in handling of the late Professor Bongani Mayosi matter, failure to deal with race and gender complaints and ongoing tussles with stakeholders on campus.

The academic said Phakeng’s welcome to Hall amounts to hailing him as a “white saviour”.

But Hall, a former vice-chancellor at the University of Salford in Manchester, was central to the curriculum race-row 22 years ago involving internationally-renowned Ugandan academic Professor Mahmood Mamdani during his tenure at UCT.

In fact, it was Hall’s submission that enabled the university to force out Mamdani, the director of the Centre of African Studies at UCT in 1996, until his ousting in 1999.

The university has since apologised to Mamdani during a lecture on his return to UCT in 2017 for the first time since he left for Columbia University.

Hall’s appointment, endorsed by the university council, has been condemned by the Black Academic Caucus at UCT, saying it endorses patriarchy and celebrates “whiteness at UCT”.

“It is irrational and unjustifiable to replace (whether on a temporary or permanent basis) a black woman DVC with a retired white man,” the caucus said in a statement.

Russell Ally, the respected executive director of the Development and Alumni Department (DAD), was asked by Phakeng to apply for the role given his rapport and contribution as the architect behind the university’s Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC) following tension on campus. Such was her faith in him, a year ago Ally joined her executive.

Ally submitted an application as Phakeng requested but the former Cambridge doctorate holder’s name was not given to the council. It is alleged that Phakeng nor the council chair responded when a council member asked why there were no candidates of colour.

The vote went 19 in favour of Hall, seven saying no, and three abstained. Previous incumbents in acting DVC roles have spent between 12 and 18 months until a permanent appointment could be made – but the university insists Hall is not replacing Feris.

South Africa’s largest public movement, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) Ikapa South and UCT branch, has demanded that the post be urgently advertised and warned that it would do “anything in our power” to ensure that UCT sticks to its employment equity targets.

Transformation is one of four pillars premised by Phakeng as non-negotiable at UCT, but the 2019 report by Feris last year shows the university lagging, while the vice-chancellor celebrates being surrounded by a women chancellor, Precious Moloi-Motsepe, and council chair, Babalwa Ngonyama.

Phakeng confirmed the removal of Feris in a message to staff on Wednesday, saying that Feris, who has been in the role almost five years, would go on sabbatical until January 31, 2022. It has been established, however, that while Phakeng had glowing praise for Feris publicly, she was allegedly rude in private and forced her out, blaming Feris for the negative perception around her over the past year, said an academic.

Feris was also the acting-vice-chancellor during the infamous bullying row investigated by former ombud Zetu Makamandela- Mguqulwa and had recommended on behalf of the executive to the previous council that the 37 claims against Phakeng by academics and staff be investigated. But, as with the present council, they attempted to sweep it under the carpet.

Asked to comment on whether he had applied for the post, Ally, who obtained his doctorate at Cambridge and worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said he could not comment as he was on a leave of absence, having requested that the remainder of his contract with UCT be incorporated into early retirement.

“I do not want to jeopardise these discussions by commenting. I am sad to leave the university in this way but I cannot remain in my position under these circumstances,” Ally said.

In another blow to UCT, it has emerged that Registrar Royston Pillay, has been successful for a similar role at the Sol Plaatje University and is due to take up the position in June.

Council member Dumisa Ntsebeza, who was nominated by convocation to serve from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2024, resigned last year after two meetings.

Baxolise Mali, regional secretary of Nehawu Ikapa South branch, said it notes with disappointment, but not with shock the decision of the UCT to appoint a retired professor as an acting head in charge of transformation.

“Our disappointment is informed by the fact that such an appointment has the potential of enforcing a view in society that UCT is pursuing gender bias in the workplace as society would hardly clap hands for replacing a female, with a male even though the acting arrangement might not be for a longer period.

“What makes us not to be shocked though is that we are of a firm belief that the selection committees of UCT have not really grasped that stakeholders both internal, and external have grown impatient with their slow pace of transformation,” Mali said.

Nehawu claimed that UCT was dragging its feet on the filling of several vacancies, including Executive Director, and Dean of Commerce, even though the positions have not been filled for a while.

Questions were sent to Phakeng but she did not comment on her perceived lack of commitment to gender and transformation but university spokesperson Elijah Moholola said Hall is not replacing an outgoing black woman.

“An acting appointment has been made on a short-term basis, commencing 1 April and lasting till 31 December or earlier if an appointment is made before then. The process of making a substantive appointment is underway.”

“The appointment of a white male in an acting capacity cannot and should not be used to cloud the institution’s commitment to transformation as reflected through recent appointments at senior leadership level. In 2020 alone, four senior leadership appointments were made, of which three are black and two are female,” he said.

Moholola added that the appointment of an Emeritus Professor in an acting capacity is not a new practice at UCT. One of the recent similar appointments, at DVC level, was in December 2018 when a white male was appointed.

Notwithstanding the Mamdani incident, Moholola said Hall’s transformation track record speaks for itself.

“He is a former DVC of transformation at UCT. He took over and built this portfolio in its very early stages. One of the criticisms he faced during his tenure was, in fact, that he gravitated more towards radical transformation – underscoring his commitment to transformation.

Yesterday, the BAC slammed the side-tracking of Feris and the selection of Hall saying it demonstrates the typical short-sightedness of the university with regards to the fundamentally important issues of transformation, and in particular the inclusion of historically marginalized groups into positions of power.

“Specifically, the recycling of retired white colleagues into positions of power completely goes against the infinitesimal ‘gains’ that may have been recorded in the area of transformation over the years,” it said.

The caucus said a similar and recent 'anointment' of two hand-picked men to the office of the now departed Ombud (a Black woman) confirms the problematic pattern of celebrating whiteness and endorsing patriarchy at UCT.

Ishmael Mnisi, spokesperson for Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, referred enquiries to the university council but said it would request a report before the Minister comments.

Council chair read Babalwa Ngonyama did not respond to a WhatApp message or phone calls about her and the council’s commitment to gender and transformation in light of the appointment of Hall which clearly is a breach of government regulation and policies.

Hall did not respond to a request for comment.

Sunday Independent

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