UCT crisis deepens as 13 top council members slam 'irregular, flawed' meeting

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UCT council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama.
UCT council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama.
  • A group of 13 prominent UCT council members have released a dissenting statement about Thursday night's council meeting.
  • The group has reserved their rights to initiate legal action.
  • The meeting, which voted against an independent inquiry into allegations against the VC and council chair, was "irregular" and "flawed", according to the group.

The governance crisis at the University of Cape Town deepened on Friday morning when 13 top members of council released a dissenting statement, calling Thursday night's special meeting "irregular" and "flawed". 

The 13 members - including Professor Danwood Chirwa, dean of the law faculty, and Professor Ntobeko Ntusi, head of medicine at UCT and Groote Schuur Hospital - said they were "guided solely by our fiduciary responsibility to uphold the integrity of the institution, as well as the duty of care we owe to the broader university community". 

Their statement comes after the council meeting was split down the middle about the need for an independent judicial commission of inquiry into allegations of mismanagement and poor corporate governance against the vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, and council chair Babalwa Ngonyama. 

Efforts to have an independent inquiry, headed by a retired judge, were thwarted when deputy council chair Pheladi Gwangwa voted in favour of an internal, human resources-led probe into the circumstances of a Senate meeting on 30 September, during which shocking allegations of misleading UCT were levelled against Ngonyama.

READ | UCT council split on investigation into allegations against chair, VC

The allegations pertain to the departure of deputy vice-chancellor for teaching, Professor Lis Lange, who, according to Ngonyama, wanted to leave for personal reasons.

In a letter to the Senate, Lange strongly disputed this, effectively stating that she was forced by the council chair to resign. 

The main charge of the aggrieved 13 council members is that Ngonyama, Gwangwa and Phakeng all voted against the motion for an independent investigation, while they were all potentially implicated in such a probe. 

"We, the undersigned, wish to place on record our concern with events that transpired at a special meeting of the University of Cape Town (UCT) council on 6 October. In particular, we seek to dissociate ourselves publicly from a decision of council that was based on a flawed voting process, and which is unlikely to stand up to legal scrutiny," the statement reads.

It continues: "The proceedings of the Senate meeting of 30 September, which were widely reported on in the press, raised issues of grave concern around good governance, past and pending exits of several senior executives, and the proper functioning of council in the execution of its mandate.

"During the Senate meeting, several allegations were made about the conduct of the chair of council [Ngonyama] in the chain of events that led to Associate Professor Lis Lange's departure from her position as deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning.

"The circumstances surrounding Prof Lange's departure remain a matter of dispute, the subject of conflicting versions. As the highest decision-making authority of the university, it behoves council to get to the bottom of these matters – to address them with the utmost seriousness and resolve – in a manner that promotes the dignity of the institution.

"Many of these governance issues have been festering since before the fallout from the departure of the former UCT Ombud, Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa."

It stated:

For this reason, a number of the signatories to this letter have repeatedly requested – over a period of several months – for a special meeting of council to be convened, at which these and other pressing concerns would be fully ventilated. These requests have been systematically thwarted.

The group objects to the way Gwangwa handled the vote after another motion for an internal, HR-led investigation was tabled. 

"The deputy chair of council (Gwangwa, who was chairing the meeting) cast the deciding vote in favour of the second motion. In our opinion, there are a number of procedural problems with the way in which the vote unfolded.

"The chair of council did not recuse herself from the vote, despite considered advice to do so, her obvious conflict of interest, and the potential risk to the university. The deputy chair of council [Gwangwa] is also the chair of the university human resources committee.

"The fact that she cast the deciding vote – even though the latter role makes her a central protagonist in matters relating to Professor Lis Lange's departure – is also a cause for concern. We believe that these potential irregularities render the decision of council fatally flawed.

"Both the process leading up to the vote, and the outcome to which it gave rise, cannot be reconciled with the principles of good governance. In closing, we take note of the statement released by [Gwangwa] after the special meeting of council. We regard its contents as inaccurate; we distance ourselves from it; and we reserve our rights on the way forward."

The dissenting statement was signed by the following 13 council members:
  1. Professor Danwood Chirwa, dean of law
  2. Professor Ntobeko Ntusi, head of medicine and Groote Schuur Hospital
  3. Sheila Barsel, adviser to the deputy speaker of the National Assembly
  4. Ezra Davids, chair and senior partner of Bowmans
  5. Professor Dianna Yach, adjunct associate professor at law faculty
  6. Shuaib Manjra, physician and honorary senior lecturer at UCT school of public health
  7. Malcolm Campbell, architect and chair of UCT's building and development committee
  8. Gareth van Onselen, CEO of Victory Research
  9. Nazeema Mohamed, CEO of Inyathelo
  10. Michael Cardo, DA MP
  11. Marlene le Roux, CEO of Artscape Theatre Centre
  12. Jacques Rousseau, lecturer in ethics at UCT's school of management studies
  13. Samuel Chetty, member of UCT's professional, administrative and services staff

Late on Thursday night, Gwangwa released a statement, calling the council meeting "robust" and "cordial".

"Following the discussions, council resolved to constitute a sub-committee that will look into some concerning governance and procedural matters relating to the Senate meeting of 30 September.

"This committee will review the matter further and then advise council on a way forward. Council arrived at the decision to constitute a sub-committee through a vote. It is important to state that all members of council, including those who also serve as Senate members, voted on this matter."

Gwangwa didn't address the potential conflicts of her, Ngonyama and Phakeng voting in her statement.

She then proceeded to give Ngonyama's version of events about her interactions with Lange that led to the experienced deputy vice-chancellor's exit from UCT.

"The chair of council [Ngonyama] provided her version of events on what transpired at a meeting between herself and Associate Professor Lis Lange. As part of her responsibilities when a vice-chancellor [Phakeng] becomes eligible for a further term of office, the chair of council is obliged to hold confidential and informal consultations with a broad range of stakeholders.

"She started this process of consultation in December 2021, engaging individually with each member of the executive team, among other constituencies."

ALSO READ | Union rips into UCT council chair ahead of 'special council meeting' after departure of senior staff member

Phakeng's term was extended by five more years in March.

"Her meeting with Associate Professor Lange on 3 January 2022 was for the vice-chancellor consultation process. Contract renewals for deputy vice-chancellors are covered by a separate human resources policy, in which the chair of council has no direct role.

"In terms of the relevant HR policy, the potential renewal of the contract of a deputy vice-chancellor must be initiated by the vice-chancellor," Gwangwa said."She met with Associate Professor Lange as a continuation of her informal and confidential engagement with stakeholders of the university on the re-appointment of the vice-chancellor.

"During this meeting, when she informed Associate Professor Lange about the possibility that the vice-chancellor's term of office would be renewed, Associate Professor Lis Lange became abrasive, aggressive and abusive, making clear her own ambition to succeed Professor Phakeng as the vice-chancellor. The chair communicated to her that she cannot support this."

Gwangwa ends by saying there was "consensus" by council members on how this matters should be handled - a statement strenuously denied by the dissenting group of 13.

"Council also received an update on changes in the senior leadership at UCT. This item will be discussed further at the next council meeting."

News24 reached out to Lange, who is abroad, to respond to Ngonyama's claims, via Gwangwa, about her alleged "abrasive, aggressive and abusive" behaviour. Her response will be included when received.

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