Picture: Leon Lestrade / African News Agency (ANA) Archives.
Picture: Leon Lestrade / African News Agency (ANA) Archives.

Emergency meeting as UCT crisis takes a new twist

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Apr 11, 2021

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Cape Town - The deepening crisis at UCT took a new twist after it emerged on Friday that a student in the faculty of health sciences allegedly committed suicide – and this will be one of a growing number of issues on the agenda during an emergency council meeting set for Tuesday.

Grieving friends of the student from the Eastern Cape claim they were forced to write assessments on the day of his death, without support from the university last month.

In a week of high drama over the controversial stop-gap appointment of a retired white male over a black woman professor, which led to the shock resignation of convocation president Eddy Maloka on Thursday, UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola confirmed a student had died in the health sciences faculty – where the dean, Professor Bongani Mayosi took his life on July 27, 2018.

He said the faculty held a night vigil with the students’ representatives on the night of his death, and a memorial service attended by family and students took place earlier last week. Since an inquest into the death has been opened by the police, UCT could not confirm the cause of death.

Regarding the assertion by students that they were forced to write assessments, Moholola said the assessments involving the affected cohorts which were scheduled for the same afternoon and the next day were postponed, but the assessments on the morning after the student’s passing went ahead as at that stage the news had not yet been announced and the university had not as yet informed the family.

He said the faculty leadership engaged with the students’ representatives and offered support as far as possible, including counselling support, to all affected students. In addition, he said the faculty supported the family and put in place arrangements to assist students with travelling to attend the funeral in the Eastern Cape.

On October 28 last year, vicechancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng told the council that between 2014 and 2017, six student deaths that occurred on campus were through suicide. There have been sporadic incidents allegedly involving suicides that have been reported over the past two years. Mental health challenges facing students and academics were highlighted as a key area for intervention by Universities South Africa, the representative organisation of the country’s tertiary institutions.

Amid growing concern on campus by black academics over their marginalisation and the cost of hiring a retired white senior executive, Moholola confirmed that the university council was scheduled to meet on Tuesday to discuss, among others, the resignation of Maloka.

Last week, the university announced that Professor Loretta Feris, the deputy vice-chancellor responsible for transformation, was going on sabbatical until January 2022 and would be replaced in an acting capacity by Hall, who worked at UCT 12 years ago. He was also central to the race row involving the axing of internationally rated scholar Professor Mahmood Mamdani.

In his powerful resignation letter, Maloka, who heads the AU’s African Peer Review Mechanism, said the recent events on campus “have shaken me” and he was unable to reason how a black female deputy vice-chancellor, who was the executive head of transformation, came to vacate her post so unceremoniously. “When her replacement is being sought, we opted for a retired white male when the university has so much talent for this portfolio in its midst,” he wrote.

Maloka said the mathematics of transformation just did not add up here, and he was not just baffled by the choice and decision of the university, but also how this important decision was reached. “I just do not see how I will continue to be part of a team that does not seem to have consensus among themselves on the basics of transformation – on its necessity and imperatives,” he said.

Dr Russell Ally, the respected executive director of the Development and Alumni Department, was asked by Phakeng to apply for the role, given his rapport with staff and students as the architect behind the university’s Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission. But his name was not given to the council to vote on. Phakeng said the chair and deputy decided against his name being put forward, while they in turn claimed it was the vice-chancellor who submitted the nomination.

The council meeting follows the sudden resignation on Thursday of Maloka, and a call on the same day for the racegender conundrum at UCT to be probed by South Africa’s parliamentary oversight committee on higher education.

DA education spokesperson Chantel King has asked the chairperson of the committee to invite UCT to the portfolio committee to help the committee understand the case – why Feris had left and whether she (Feris) had been subjected to bullying before her departure.

Moholola said UCT noted the resignation of Maloka with sadness and regret, adding that the UCT council would be giving the matter the attention it needed and would address the many issues raised.

Sunday Independent and Weekend Argus

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