Fear and loathing at UCT as university Ombud calls VC Mamokgethi Phakeng a 'bully'

University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng is seen during an interview. (Esa Alexander, Gallo Images, Sunday Times, file)
University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng is seen during an interview. (Esa Alexander, Gallo Images, Sunday Times, file)
  • A report by UCT's Ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa claims the vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, is a bully who rules by fear - and lists her enemies in "a black book".
  • In response, Phakeng vigorously defends her reputation - accusing the Ombud of acting in bad faith, disregarding the law and violating her rights.
  • The actions by UCT's council has already led to the resignation of the council's deputy chairperson in protest.

Damning claims of "bullying" and a culture of fear have been levelled against high-ranking leaders at the University of Cape Town, most notably vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, opening a can of worms which the UCT council says threatens the university's "governance and stability".

In a surprise move on Thursday, the office of the UCT Ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa published its annual report online, which has been the source of a dramatic leadership saga at the university for months.

The report was posted online by the office of the Ombud despite legal advice, received by UCT, that making the report public could cause "permanent and irreparable damage to [Phakeng], and to the university".

This development unfolded less than 48 hours before the new UCT council is due to meet for the first time this Saturday to elect its new leadership for the next four-year term of office.

The internecine battle began on 27 February, with the draft annual report by Makamandela-Mguqulwa. The office of the Ombud "provides a safe and objective place where people can air their concerns, receive referrals, find out about relevant policies and procedures, and discuss formal and informal options for addressing their concerns".

A long litany of damaging claims, counter-claims, warnings and attempts to heal senior relationships followed.

Included in the Ombud's report, which covers the period 1 July 2018 to 30 June 2019, is a foreword in which Phakeng is accused of bullying.

"A number of work-related complaints came to me during this reporting period about professional interactions with the VC where people felt bullied, silenced, undermined, rebuked and/or treated unfairly," reads the foreword.

The report read:

Their pain was visible. Some affected bystanders also came to express fear and told me how they were impacted individually by different incidents.

"My usual approach is to be guided by the visitor on what they want to achieve by bringing the issue to my attention. Not one of those who brought these issues wanted me to approach the vice-chancellor as they feared retaliation. The bystanders said they would not want to experience what they saw first-hand happen to others. What concerned me was how the visitors came in different capacities but all spoke about the same fear."

According to Makamandela-Mguqulwa, many UCT-based visitors told her that this was 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 of UCT communications that speak about UCT being a community," the Ombud wrote.

'I am shocked'

The Ombud reports to the UCT council, via its chairperson, and her report was duly sent on to Phakeng on 27 February, as is standard.

The UCT council comprises 30 people, 60% of whom are external members, and 40% internal members, including staff and students.

Days later, Phakeng wrote to the council chair, Sipho Pityana, vigorously protesting the content of the Ombud's report.

Phakeng wrote: "Dear Chair of Council, I am writing to you with two concerns regarding the report of the Ombud:

Phakeng's concerns

1. The process: I am shocked that the Ombud has submitted a report, that implicates the VC, to council and the exec without giving the VC an opportunity to respond to the allegations made in the report. 

2. Confidentiality: I am concerned that a report wherein I am explicitly mentioned is circulated without giving me the right to respond.

"It is true that I have disagreed with the Ombud and my disagreements with her had nothing to do with my respect or lack thereof the office. We, however, have also had amicable meetings and so I am surprised that she chose to raise issues in this manner, which in my view contradicts the role of her office.

"As I understand an Ombud is a person designated as a neutral or impartial dispute resolution practitioner, whose major function in this capacity is to provide confidential and informal assistance as a counsellor, shuttle diplomat, mediator, fact-finder and agent for orderly systems change.

"Given the tone of the report and the manner in which it is submitted, I have serious questions about the motives on the Ombud. I request that the Ombud retract, with an apology, the report she submitted so that proper process can be followed and confidentiality be ensured. Regards, Kgethi."

READ | UCT's 'racist academic paper' furore: both sides have their say

The Ombud's report was due to have been dealt with by the full UCT Council on 14 March.

But on 6 March, the council's deputy chair, Debbie Budlender, wrote to her fellow-members of the full council to announce her immediate resignation - in protest at an alleged decision to withdraw the Ombud's report from the 14 March agenda.

Budlender said that, at a meeting four days prior, a suggestion was made that the report be withdrawn from the agenda, and "another way found of dealing with it".

"I said I was uncomfortable with this approach as this was a report by the Ombud to the council, by whom she is appointed, and we should not be interfering with the Ombud fulfilling her accountability duty to council and council fulfilling their responsibility of overseeing the Ombud, engaging with the Ombud, reflecting on what she reports, and determining what this means for the university. 

"Further, given that the Ombud is meant to be independent, neither the executive nor the council should be determining what the Ombud can or cannot say."

'I deny that I have bullied the Ombud'

On 13 March, Phakeng issued a full response to the Ombud's report - a 13-page document in which she tackled and challenged every negative claim by the Ombud.

Among the vice-chancellor's allegations were: "By cloaking her untested personal grievances in the form of a formal report of the office to council, the Ombud has abused her office in the most flagrant manner, and acted in violation of the principles that govern her office and indeed every known basic principle of natural justice.

"The disproportionate prominence given to the untested allegations in the report suggests mala fides on the part of the Ombud.

The University of Cape Town’s Ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa.

"I believe that this abuse of office and disregard for the law is unprecedented, brazen, and dangerous. It has severely undermined my leadership and my dignity."

In further paragraphs, Phakeng defends herself, writing: "I deny that I have bullied or silenced the Ombud. Neither have I treated her office unfairly. There is no evidence, and I deny, that I have victimised any person who has lodged a complaint against me to any office in the university."

Phakeng concluded with the following demands:

1. That the report is withdrawn unconditionally so that all offensive parts are removed. 

2. The revised report must meet my approval before it is submitted to council. 

3. The office of the Ombud should make a written apology to my office.

The vice-chancellor also warned: "I would like to believe that the Ombud has opened herself up to possible disciplinary action.

"In my opinion, she has acted in a perverse manner and violated all the fundamental principles that govern her office. Her actions are divisive and have precipitated an unnecessary tension and crisis. I will leave it to your office to decide how best to proceed in the light of these violations."

'Black book'

Three days later, the Ombud submitted a reply, providing more detail, including allegations that 37 visitors had complained to her about Phakeng. The Ombud further claimed that in a meeting with the vice-chancellor "she told me that she keeps a black book in which she notes all the names of the people who do not like or support her. She explained that I had made it to also be named in her black book".

READ | Phakeng speaks after 5 UCT students die in two months

On 31 March, the process by which the UCT council was dealing with the Ombud's report was called out in a warning from UCT's deputy vice-chancellors and chief operating officer, Loretta Feris, Lis Lange, Sue Harrison and Reno Morar. The four executives warned:

"It is our view, based on information we have at our disposal as of 31 March 2020, that the way this matter has been dealt with since 27 February 2020 presents a major risk to the university. These include at the individual level personal and professional risks; and at the institutional level include legal, reputational and governance risks. We therefore request that, as a matter of urgency, Council formally prescribe the way it intends to deal with this matter both substantively and procedurally."

On 8 April, a legal opinion by advocate Michelle O'Sullivan for the council stated that the Ombud's report was neither impartial nor neutral, had breached confidentiality and exceeded her mandate. O'Sullivan recommended the report not be served before council, and kept confidential to prevent "permanent and irreparable damage to the VC, and to the university".

Council resolves to note Ombud report

Several weeks then passed, with continued correspondence between the parties. This included a plea by Makamandela-Mguqulwa for council to allow her to re-write her foreword to her main report - considering the decision not to publish her original foreword. But in a mail of 4 June, Pityana, the council chair, wrote to the Ombud, explaining that this request had not been granted.

On 10 June, Pityana and deputy council chair Shirley Zinn, released a "Final Report to UCT Council" - with the official record of a "UCT Special Council Meeting of 24 April".

In it, the pair wrote that council resolved to only "note" the first part of the Ombud's report "Message from the Ombud", and that the second part may be published as was regular practice with annual reports of the Ombud.

"Council also resolved that the chair and deputy chair convey to the VC its deep concern that she had elected to institute a High Court challenge to review and set aside the Ombud's report, with its associated reputational risks to UCT.

"Council maintained that it was competent to deal with the issues raised. A similar view was taken of the Ombudsperson who warned that she reserved the right to take legal action should she deem it necessary to do so. This was done and the legal proceedings have been stopped," Pityana and Zinn said.

Pityana and Zinn then disclosed further details of more widespread conflict between the UCT's executive.

'Dysfunctional executive relations'

The pair reported the UCT council was "concerned about an undercurrent of tensions in the senior leadership team which threatened good governance and institutional stability".

Pityana and Zinn then detail a long process by which the university attempted to deal with the conflicts which became so serious they deteriorated into "dysfunctional executive relations".

"It became apparent to council that in the course of engaging with the Ombud's report, as reported by the chair of council, that the relations between these key executives of the university were severely impaired and possibly threatened the governance of the institution."

Pityana and Zinn reported that an evaluation of Phakeng's first year in office had "raised red flags".

"An important context in this regard is the fact that in its recommendation to council for the appointment of Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng to the position of vice-chancellor, the selection committee highlighted with her, the senate and council her excellent academic and career credentials that placed her head and shoulders above her competitors, but also her leadership and personality shortcomings."

Several interventions and professional team-building processes followed. From these, council reported: "Common themes that emerged from these discussions revealed leadership traits that are problematic and certainly not conducive to an academic institution.

These were:
  • Authoritarian leadership style that is about throwing around the weight of the office
  • MisTRUST that is intended to exact a culture of pandering for endearment from those in power
  • Mindless INSECURITY: an endless fear of attempts to be undermined, unseated from VC role or sabotaged
  • Continuous burden to prove worthiness for role
  • Abrasive behaviour
  • Poor interpersonal skills and an inability to build a cohesive team
  • Non-collegial culture 

"This has been experienced as sometimes humiliating, demeaning, undermining, disrespectful and not good for the personal health of all those affected," Pityana and Zinn reported.

'No option but to disown report'

The council believed it needed to act to address the situation, acknowledging:

"In considering our response, we should reflect on other ramifications and unintended consequences of whatever decision we take. By our inaction, we would be endorsing a conduct that is capable of cascading down to other levels of management with uncontrollably destabilising consequences for the institution. We may be reasonably accused of making the VC to a lame duck; or worse still that we may be said to have reduced her to a female black token leader."

In various correspondence, the deputy vice-chancellors and COO deny allegations they "in any way acted in defiance of authority".

Since the 10 June communication by Pityana and Zinn, and the decision not to publish the original foreword, the Ombud on June 19 warned the UCT council that because her foreword had not been published, "I will have no option but to disown that report".

On Thursday, however, the report appeared online on the Ombud's website.

On the next steps towards addressing the "dysfunctional executive relations", News24 is in possession of "draft agreements" between Phakeng and her deputies and COO. These include the vice-chancellor and the deputies promising to "never undermine each other's authority" and "never to humiliate or put each other down in any fora". News24 has requested an update on whether these agreements were finalised, and/or are currently in place.

The 10 June report also included that council should give attention to a review of the terms of reference for the Office of the Ombud.

The term of office of the UCT council ended on 30 June. The incoming council’s details were updated on UCT's website, detailing the new council, with effect 1 July, when the new term of office of the new council started. The council will elect its chair, deputy chair, council executive committee, chairs and members of the committees of council at its first meeting.

News24 sent a list of 14 questions to UCT – specifically of Pityana, Phakeng, the Registrar, Royston Pillay and the UCT council.

A short response from the communication and marketing department reads: "Council has a fiduciary responsibility in carrying out its governance obligations, which it does with due regard to the interests of the University of Cape Town. The issues raised relate to confidential council deliberations and documents, and it is not appropriate for such matters to be discussed outside of the council processes or in the media."

A spokesperson for Pityana responded: "I've been advised to inform you that Mr Pityana is no longer an officer of the university and that you should channel your query to the vice-chancellor and/or the registrar."

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