UCT to act on Ombud's report, but affirms support for Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng

University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
Esa Alexander, Gallo Images, Sunday Times, file
  • UCT has promised to speed up its policy on bullying, after the Vice-Chancellor was recently accused of it.
  • The university committed to strengthen the office of the Ombud.
  • The new UCT council chair strongly backed Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng as the right person for the job.

The executive leadership at the University of Cape Town appears to have kissed and made up.

And UCT's newly-elected council chair has announced strong steps in response to allegations made by the institution's Ombud in her 2019 report.

Damning claims of "bullying" and a culture of fear were recently levelled against high-ranking leaders at UCT, most notably Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, opening a can of worms which the UCT council said threatened the university's "governance and stability".

The report by UCT's Ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa claimed the Vice-Chancellor was a bully who ruled by fear - and listed her enemies in "a black book".

In response, Phakeng vigorously defended her reputation - accusing the Ombud of acting in bad faith, disregarding the law and violating her rights.

This took place under the leadership of the outgoing UCT council, which ended its term of office on 30 June. 

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

In early-July, the newly-elected Council met for the first time, with Babalwa Ngonyama being elected the new Chair of UCT Council.

This week, the new chair has issued her maiden statement.

Ngonyama wrote: "Council welcomes scrutiny by the media, but leaking confidential matters not only compromises the ability of council to do its work but also damages the university."

Response

Ngonyama announced specific action in response to the Ombud's report: "Council respects the independence of the Office of the Ombud and acknowledges the role of the Ombud as a safeguard against abuse of all forms, bias and other improper treatment or unfairness.

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"The 2019 annual report released by UCT's Ombud reveals concerns pertaining to institutional culture challenges, notably around the issue of bullying. We want to assure the university community that as council we are committed to giving dedicated attention to all the matters raised in the report.

"UCT's values are based upon respect for the dignity of all its members. Any conduct by any member of the university that undermines these values is unacceptable."

Ngonyama said she had "engaged with the Office of the Ombud and we're committed to work together to move the university forward in a unified way, especially around enhancing the university's governance and institutional culture".

Council and the Office of the Ombud have committed to undertake the following measures:
  • Expedite the adoption of the bullying policy.
  • Strengthen the governance of the Office of the Ombud.
  • Put in place more robust reporting mechanisms to council.
  • Consult with the university community on the best ways to institutionalise the reports of the Office of the Ombud to ensure that the executive, deans and heads of department engage more formally with these reports.
  • Institute with immediate effect monthly meetings between the chair of the council and the Office of the Ombud.
  • Provide for the Office of the Ombud to report to council on a six-monthly basis instead of annually.
  • Ensure that recommendations made by the Office of the Ombud are timeously and practically followed up and given the necessary attention


Acknowledging that the manner in which the report was released was regrettable, it was further agreed:

  • To put in place appropriate mechanisms to deal with the complaints and allegations made to the Office of the Ombud.
  • Respect the rights of all the parties concerned, especially the visitors who entrusted the Ombud with their complaints.
  • To explore best approaches to rebuilding the relationship between the Office of the Vice-Chancellor and the Office of the Ombud, ensuring mutual respect for both offices.
  • Council commits to keeping the Ombud abreast of the outcomes of the steps taken as a response to the 2019 report.

A day earlier, UCT's top five most senior management executive said in a separate announcement: "We acknowledge that there have been tensions in the executive, much of it has been resolved and we remain committed to working as a team.

"The interest of the university is at the centre of what we do, and we are focused on ensuring that the University of Cape Town (UCT) continues to succeed. Leading a university like UCT is a complex, challenging and exhilarating experience.

"Whilst there might be differences of opinion and personal complexities from time to time, we are, as a team, totally committed to leading this university in the best way possible. We are united around this goal in our daily work and are determined to continue to lead this university to an exciting and thriving future."

The message was signed, "With best wishes", by:

  • Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor
  • Professor Loretta Feris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Transformation
  • Professor Sue Harrison, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation
  • Associate Professor Lis Lange, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning
  • Dr Reno Morar, Chief Operating Officer

On 10 June, the outgoing council's leadership, Sipho Pityana and Shirley Zinn, reported that the UCT council was "concerned about an undercurrent of tensions in the senior leadership team which threatened good governance and institutional stability" - with reference to the five executives above.

Pityana and Zinn detailed 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."

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, including":

  • 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. 

News24 has on several occasions asked UCT to disclose what further steps were in place to address these tensions and traits, but the university declined to answer the questions directly.

Instead, in her message on Tuesday, Ngonyama indicated she strongly backed the Vice-Chancellor, saying: "The Vice-Chancellor has to lead the organisation with a clear vision. Professor Phakeng took office as Vice-Chancellor of UCT at a time of great change. Many senior staff members were leaving the university. Of the eight vacant deanship positions, only two were filled. Sadly, one of the deans, Professor Bongani Mayosi, passed away tragically within 27 days of the new VC's appointment.

"Professor Phakeng has skilfully steered the institution to more stability, particularly in terms of student unrest. In her efforts she foregrounded transformation, while prioritising excellence. Under her leadership, UCT has made much progress, which include:

  • UCT is the leading African university in all the five major world university rankings for the first time.
  • For the first time five of the UCT's current eight deans are black (broadly defined). This is a move that bodes well for the university's transformation agenda.
  • We are also confident that we will shortly conclude the appointment of a black African South African executive director.

On the documented tensions between the Vice-Chancellor and her deputies, Ngonyama wrote: "Furthermore, we are pleased with the commitment pledged by members of the executive team to work together, as a team, in the best interests of the university. As council, we will not only support the executive team's efforts to carry out the university's vision, but will also continue to hold the executive accountable to lead the university in the best way possible."

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