UCT sticks to its guns, bars Media24 from attending special council sitting

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UCT vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
UCT vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
PHOTO: Esa Alexander, Gallo Images, Sunday Times
  • UCT has stuck firmly to its decision not to allow the media to attend a special council sitting on Monday. 
  • It comes after News24 threatened legal action on Friday. 
  • News24's editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson remained adamant that the publication was exploring its options. 

The University of Cape Town (UCT) is dead set on not allowing the media to attend a special council sitting scheduled for Monday, where governance issues involving two of its most senior officer bearers will be deliberated. 

This after News24 threatened legal action to demand access.

UCT attorney Adela Petersen said: "The decision of the Registrar as communicated to your client [News24] on 3 November 2022 stands."

Petersen maintained that the university would communicate the outcome of the Special Council Meeting as advised by the Registrar.

News24's attorney, Charl du Plessis, wrote to the university to demand access or face legal action. 

Du Plessis argued: 

We wish to emphasise that News24 does not contend that sittings of the university's council must, by default, always be open to the public or that this request should in any way set such a precedent. Such requests must, by their very nature, always be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

"However, with regard to the seriousness of the governance issues that have been raised, and the fact that they relate to two of the university's most senior office bearers, News24 believes that this is a matter in which such access should be granted."

READ | 'In the public interest': Legal action looms after UCT refuses News24 access to special council meeting

UCT council's secretary, Royston Pillay, declined News24's request to be allowed into the special council sitting.

Pillay said council meetings must be private, so that members may discharge their duties on that basis.

"UCT will communicate the outcome of this and other council meetings as appropriate. Regrettably, therefore, please note that it is not possible to accede to your request," Pillay said.

News24 understands several crucial items relating to the governance of the university will be discussed. Among them, a motion of no confidence to be tabled against the deputy chair of the council, Pheladi Gwangwa, the terms of reference for the independent investigation that will be chaired by a retired judge and the status of the chair of the council, Babalwa Ngonyama, and vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng during the process of the probe.

Last month, the UCT council decided that a retired judge and an independent panel of four experts would determine whether Phakeng was guilty of misconduct.

In a significant about-turn, a majority of council members voted that Phakeng and Ngonyama should be investigated by the retired judge and a panel.

At the heart of their probe is whether Phakeng and Ngonyama misled the university's executive and senate about the reasons for the departure of the deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning, Associate Professor Lis Lange.

READ | Blow for Phakeng as UCT senate votes for independent probe into conduct of top leaders and council

News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan said he was disappointed at the university's decision not to allow the media in, but that a firm commitment to communicate the outcome of the meeting was a positive outcome. 

He said News24 was still considering its legal options.

"Monday's council meeting will need to deal with a number of critical matters concerning governance at UCT. The public has the right to know that the council will finalise the appointment of an independent investigation into the vice-chancellor and chair of the council without fear or favour."

Basson said, irrespective of whether journalists are allowed into council meetings or not, News24 will continue to investigate and closely report on the governance crisis at UCT.

"UCT is an incredibly important institution of higher learning in South Africa. It is our duty, as the media, to shine a light on allegations of misconduct, bullying and abuse of power by the leaders of this institution."

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