Claims of censorship and bullying at UCT as another explosive report surfaces
* This story has been updated to include a statement from UCT.
Cape Town - Another explosive report has thrown UCT into turmoil amid claims of censorship, bullying and threats by
the vice-chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, and her executive to
muzzle the university Ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa.
According to the report, UCT is a campus tormented by 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 (VC) where people felt bullied, silenced, undermined, rebuked and/or treated unfairly.
Makamandela-Mguqulwa told the Sunday Independent that the Office of the Ombud was established in 2010 to provide a safe space where people could air concerns and discuss ways of addressing them. While she has found university leadership receptive to the work, which has had a transformative impact on campus, the mood has changed, and she feels let down by the university council under chairperson Sipho Pityana, which had not acted on the report since March 14.
“I report to the council, not the vice-chancellor, but she went to court in her personal capacity to try and stop me from releasing my report to them,” said Makamandela-Mguqulwa.
She said the report, which she put up on the ombud’s website to ensure transparency, highlights issues around governance by the vice-chancellor up to the council and the roles they play.
“If my report is anything to go by, they have failed me. It was working well in the past, well in a sense there have always been some disagreements, but we found ways to resolve them internally during the leadership of former vice-chancellor Dr Max Price, who retired two years ago, without having to attract external interest.
“As ombud, I was appointed to highlight what was not working. The office is meant to unearth critical issues and I was led to understand that my work would involve scrutinising even the highest at university.”
She said her office operates according to the principles of the International Ombudsman Association, of which she is Africa chairperson.
“My role was to shine a light to what does not work, which is what I’m paid for. I find it ironic, going back and forth about the report, earlier this
year I was invited to Mexico to talk about the senate and the need to report and what to report, yet the council
did not act on the report,” she said.
This is her second-last report as ombud at UCT before her term ends in December, and Makamandela-Mguqulwa, who has been asked by Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande to assist other institutions set up similar offices, said “it is not a good news report” for the period July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019.
Two weeks ago, Phakeng took to Twitter to celebrate two years as vice-chancellor.
But the report lifts the lid on a repressive atmosphere on campus in which different views or criticism are not tolerated, including resentment towards the once receptive atmosphere directed towards the ombud.
The scrutiny and feedback no longer seemed welcome, at least from the highest office at UCT.
“In this reporting period, it seemed I was not to be trusted. Instead, my office seems to be seen by the VC herself as supporting transgressions and advocating for wrongdoing,” she said.
Makamandela-Mguqulwa said a number of work-related complaints reached her office about professional interactions with the VC where people felt bullied, silenced, undermined, rebuked and/or treated unfairly.
“Their pain was visible. Some affected bystanders came to express fear and told me how they were impacted by different incidents.”
She said according to a quote, UCT Values states: “To refrain from speech or conduct that demeans or humiliates others” but many of the UCT-based visitors told her that this was not their experience with Phakeng.
“They reported that she used words that were experienced as combative and violent - such as ‘fighting in a ring’ and that she, as the VC, would ultimately ‘win while the other is destined to lose’. Knowing this was unfolding, I became increasingly concerned about a number of things, including the bullying policy that the university has not yet finalised, and the myriad UCT communications that speak about UCT being a community,” the report said.
Of concern, she said was an occurrence that took place late 2019 and outside this reporting period, but which reflects the executive’s “seeming aim to silence, erase my office or change its mandate”.
“Drawing from the Terms of Reference of the office, the job description and how the work should be done, I explained my role at UCT. It became apparent the executive did not understand the role of the ombud, that they had not been reading the reports, or they wanted to recreate the role in a manner that did not interfere with academic decisions. I am the first to respect the autonomy of academics to do their work, but when personal motivations lead to unfair processes and outcomes, people complain, and I have to respond.
“Negative remarks from the VC about my office concern me. I wonder how these views might impact the university’s capacity to deliver on fair outcomes where her office is involved as well as potential watering down of my effectiveness and the gains of the office over the years,” she said.
The task of the ombud is to be a resource for dispute resolution, to protect the interests and rights of the members of the university community from injustices and inefficiencies, delays and complication or unfair application of the rules, interpersonal conflicts and help explain university policies, where appropriate.
In a statement on Sunday morning, the university said the Ombud's report and the issues raised are receiving the attention of the UCT Council.
"This matter was handled by the previous Council, whose term ended on 30 June 2020. The newly constituted Council will be meeting this weekend and will continue the work of the previous Council, including dealing with this matter.
"The matter is a confidential one and it is therefore not appropriate for confidential matters to be discussed outside of the Council processes in the public space. The executive of UCT deeply respect the confidentiality of this process and will also not comment.
"The UCT Council will apply its mind on the matter and will do so holding the interest of the institution and those that work in it at the centre of all of its deliberations," the statement said.
The report is available at here.