UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng
UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

Transformation at UCT: Statistics paint a bleak picture

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Aug 16, 2020

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Johannesburg - Amid ongoing tension over the controversial leadership of Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-chancellor of UCT, is a constant unsubstantiated suggestion of an anti-transformation force on campus - but the university’s 2019 report on change shows that the problem may reside with nobody but Phakeng and her executive team.

The Transformation Report 2019, which also raised concerns about people being silenced when they raised challenges around transformation, has also lifted the lid on the fact that several of the drivers of transformation had resigned in the absence of appreciation of their efforts.

The report sketches a rosy picture of Phakeng and her executive talking up UCT’s African identity, but the statistics tell a different story.

UCT’s top management team which is made up of 23 members (the vice-chancellor, three deputy vice-chancellors, the chief operating officer, the registrar, nine executive directors, seven deans and the director: Graduate School of Business) is dominated by coloured and Indian or white South Africans.

Only four, including Phakeng, are of African descent, described in the transformation report as black South Africans.

In another sleight on UCT’s transformation progress, only seven out of the 58 heads of academic departments, according to the website at the university are of African descent, suggesting that UCT’s Africa identity is not being shaped by Africans.

Despite the recent public relations exercise in the wake of the recent Mayosi report and damaging claims of bullying against Phakeng by 37 staff members, the transformation report which was released on June 23 underlined various challenges facing the university.

But there are doubts about getting to grips with the findings as it is alleged Phakeng and management have failed to address both the Mayosi and Ombudsman report - particularly addressing the bullying claims by 37 staff members.

Some academics feel their complaints have fallen on deaf ears and that UCT is not a place where one can freely express oneself without repercussions.

“The bully has won,” said a staff member.

Releasing the report on June 23, Professor Loretta Feris, the deputy vice-chancellor for transformation, told staff in a statement that everyone at the university must continue to commit to address inequalities within the institution.

Feris said the report stands out because for the first time, UCT used benchmarks that allow tracking of progress in relation to transformation.

A major theme, according to the report, was the “burden” of transformation work, with many employment equity (EE) representatives at the forefront of implementing the strategy, while other activists faced significant challenges arising from the fact that this work was not formally recognised as an unpaid exercise.

Several chairpersons resigned last year citing reach and limitations placed on the transformation committees as key challenges. In addition, the committees said they were not taken seriously, their proposals ignored, and, in some cases, they have been silenced - a recurring theme at UCT under Phakeng though in this instance she was not necessarily named.

These obstacles have seen a dwindling pool of employment equity representatives in some departments, as the conditions under which their work had to be conducted acted as a disincentive.

“The goal in 2020 needs to be a commitment to addressing the real issues at (our department), the core reasons for the high turnover and worrying lived experiences of staff, especially that of black staff.

“The general feeling within the department at the end of 2019 was that little had changed despite the few interventions that were implemented.

“Thus, a deeper and more thoughtful approach is needed,” according to an unnamed non-academic staff member.

The meek Black Academic Caucus, silent on most of the recent controversial issues on campus because its members allegedly fear reprisals and funding cuts, notes: “Disappointment at the resistance and/or clear lack of will to transform and decolonise the university.”

Another faculty member responding anonymously said transformation is much spoken about but certainly not valued in the same way as research or teaching.

“If it was, the financial commitment to make it a reality would reflect that. Within that austere environment change is mostly driven by small groups or individuals who believe in change and struggle every day against a system that is inherently pitched against their efforts. As a result, the work of transformation is often a lonely and isolating one which ironically induces its own ‘othering’.”

“It has been challenging to drive transformation in a large faculty as buy-in and commitment to the transformation agenda is inconsistent across departments and among other demands for time and energy,” said another academic.

Human resources said the transformation journey has been both rewarding and challenging.

“Internally, HR has continued to make progress in terms of the staff diversity, inclusion and change initiatives.”

But a staff member said in the report that “mixed messages had come out of human resources on transformation”. Far from the claims about anti-transformation forces on campus, the 2019 report said efforts to build a more transformed campus have some limitations related to governance, such as the access for the committees to decision-making spaces, resources and recognition for work, remains a gap.

While efforts are consistent, the report said they are disconnected (entities work in silos) and unco-ordinated.

UCT stands to gain from connecting and co-ordinating efforts, for example, deputy deans for transformation stand to gain from multilateral meetings and individual departments focused on decolonising curricula stand to gain from learning about the efforts of other departments.

The report said the process of transformation is slow and restrained, and there is a suggestion to centre and enable activist approaches to change.

Ironically, the often-leaked anti-transformation narrative is absent in the 2019 transformation report but the university’s lip-service commitment to genuine transformation on the journey towards UCT’s African identity is solid on paper - but the numbers don’t add up except at high-level ceremonial levels with the vice-chancellor, council chair Babalwa Ngonyama and chancellor Precious Moloi-Motsepe transforming at the top.

The university did not respond to several questions about the spurious claims about an anti-transformation agenda on campus.

Spokesperson Elijah Moholola said no interviews would be granted allowing UCT the space to support the important processes kickstarted by council chairperson Ngonyama in light of both the Mayosi and the Ombud’s damning reports.

The Sunday Independent

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