‘UCT vice-chancellor allowed use of resources to push dean appointment’

University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng has been dragged into a debacle over the appointment process of the dean of humanities.

Phakeng has been accused of allowing Dr Shose Kessi, acting dean of humanities, to use UCT resources to campaign for the post.

The allegation is contained in a communiqué dated September 11.

It was written by a group of black academics within the humanities faculty who refer to themselves as the 27% Group, and was meant for the UCT council.

Dr Shose Kessi

However, City Press understands that it never reached the council because the UCT registrar, in an email dated September 15 and which City Press has seen, responded to the group saying that “it would be premature to refer this to council at this stage in the process”.

Kessi, who has been in the acting position since March, is competing with Professor Grace Khunou, who works at the University of Johannesburg’s sociology department, for the post.

The group identifies itself as the 27% Group because it lost to the majority, which supported Kessi, during a faculty vote in May.

The debacle has also allegedly split the Black Academics Caucus (BAC), a structure set up by academics to pursue transformation at universities, into a group supporting Khunou, a South African academic, and another which backs Kessi, a Tanzanian.

The document from the 27% Group reads: “The published advertisement for the post of the dean of humanities was explicit about particularly attracting black (African, coloured and Indian) South African candidates. This was in line with established EE policy of the government and the university.

“This intention was confirmed when it was announced that Professor Rose Boswell was not an appointable candidate. Why? Because her citizenship was granted after 1994, and by implication, she did not experience generations of systematic state racism towards black and African people born in South Africa.”

The group also alleged Kessi was conflicted.

“Unfortunately, the office and the research project she manages, the Decolonial Hub (entirely supported by the vice-chancellor research funds), are used in the campaign to secure her this appointment.”

City Press understand that Phakeng was being dragged into the debacle because a seminar titled Citizenship and Violence: Resilient Colonialism, Xenophobia and Femicide was convened by Kessi at the beginning of this month.

An academic within BAC said posters for the seminar carried text viewed as elevating Kessi’s status.

Wording such as “acting dean of humanities presents” was used instead of “the faculty of humanities presents” or “the office of the dean of humanities presents”, which used to be the case when such events were convened by acting deans in the past.

Elijah Moholola, UCT spokesperson, would not be drawn into commenting on allegations against Phakeng, only saying the “recruitment processes are confidential”.

“We do not wish to say anything beyond the statement,” Moholola said, despite being sent specific questions.

Kessi and Khunou declined to comment, indicating that it would be inappropriate to do so while the process was under way.

But another academic within BAC backed Kessi, arguing she was among those who spearheaded the formation of the structure.

“The whole conversation about the increase of black South Africans at UCT was started by Kessi. It’s so ironic and so unfair that she’s been treated this way. We must have lost our humanity somewhere. If we are doing things this way, I don’t want to be a South African,” the academic said.

In its communiqué, the 27% Group also said the selection committee had identified Khunou as appointable and said that UCT needed to consider employment equity legislation and targets.

Moholola said in the statement that it would be inappropriate to comment in detail on any recruitment process.

“The recruitment process for the position of dean of humanities is ongoing. The selection process includes an open faculty process prior to interviews, during which faculty staff are given the opportunity to meet the shortlisted candidates, after which feedback is provided to the selection committee. This could entail a public presentation to staff and students of the faculty, and/or visits to departments with the relevant faculty, and/or a meeting with the dean’s advisory committee. This is followed by the final interview and recommendation.”

Dr Nomusa Makhubu, BAC chairperson, said the structure was a collective of scholars, not a political party or closed organisation.

“On principle, we respect that members may differ in opinions on a number of issues. This a healthy aspect of the collective. Difference of opinion, however, does not necessarily mean irreconcilable conflict or, as you put it, factions.”

There was no BAC stance on any candidate, Makhubu said, adding that shortlisted candidates were all black.

She said it was a pity that this had become what it has.

“Most unsettling is that black women are being made to bear the brunt of it. It has reached the point of personal attacks, which we find disturbing. We find these allegations anti-black, Afrophobic and disappointingly vindictive. We reiterate that we unapologetically support all black scholars and will not accept the level of intimidation and divisive tactics we have witnessed during this process. As the BAC, we will continue to play our part in addressing structural racism at UCT in all its forms,” she said.


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