Clandestine Academic Warfare at UCT

 Members of the Executive, Senate and Council fight amongst themselves while fearful and bullied students, educators and researchers suffer in silence and non-racialism is threatened by copycat ‘anti-racism’

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University of Cape Town UCT

Part 1. Staff lost?

 At the end of my last piece that addressed the effects of “racial cowardice” of would-be anti-racists at UCT, I commented: “I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

The wait is over.

In a “lengthy” “INVESTIGATION” published on 3 October 2022, the Daily Maverick (DM) claimed that, over the past four years, a crisis in leadership has developed at UCT. It is evidenced by “losses” within UCT’s senior leadership team and ”increasing toxicity” within Her governing “watchdog” Council. This crisis is attributed to actionable misbehaviour by two self-made black women who have overcome enormous obstacles and have peer-reviewed, outstanding and complementary track records in education, administration and business. These women are the democratically selected and re-appointed UCT Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, and the Chair of the UCT Council, entrepreneur Babalwa Ngonyama (hereafter P&N).

Before I continue, a quick interjection.

Yes, UCT is in crisis. Yes, there have been losses of leaders. Yes, there is increasing toxicity. However, the crisis has roots stretching back to 2013; key leadership losses and toxicity date back to 2015; and two names of alleged miscreants need to be added: VC Max Price and Council Chairperson Sipho Pityana. To get a real take of the history of these matters requires consulting deeper and real ‘lengthy’ analyses such as Professor David Benatar’s recent book The Fall of the University of Cape Town and my attempts to describe UCT’s history back to its early beginnings (see here and here or consult my pieces in Rational Standard, Politicsweb and BizNews).

Otherwise, those concerned about UCT’s past, present and future will fail to appreciate that, in fact, VC Phakeng and her management team have done much to resuscitate an institution decimated since 2015 by the depredations of destructive Fallists and dissatisfied staff, aided and abetted by her predecessor Dr Max Price and sanctioned by Ngonyama’s predecessor Sipho Pityana.

Chairperson Ngonyama, rather than being Phakeng’s ‘hit-person’, has worked in tandem with the current VC. Together, they have constructively nurtured the development of – and are steadfastly attempting to implement – the widely accepted, Senate/Council-endorsed, non-racial Vision 2030 for UCT’s academic project. This implementation seems not to have been welcomed by some influential academic and powerful administrative staff (especially those ‘inherited’ from the Price Era), neo-Fallists, the Black Academic Caucus (BAC – see here, here, here) and others focused on reifying racialism under the guise of “anti-racism”.

Evidence?

The primary evidence of malfeasance by P&N offered by the DM relates to the sudden and premature “loss” of “highly respected” Deputy Vice-chancellor for Teaching and Learning, Associate Professor Lis Lange.

Her voluntary decision not to seek renewal of – and immediately relinquish – her DVC appointment had been announced on 2 May 2002. After a period of study and research leave, she took up a senior post within UCT’s Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED). She was not fired, is not lost to UCT and received a generous financial payout vis-à-vis her necessary redeployment.

In reality, Lange’s appointment as a DVC in 2018 – during the last few months of the Price administration – was not welcomed widely. When she was selected for the post instead of full Professor Elelwani Ramugondo (an educator and researcher at UCT since 1998 and now DVC for Transformation), Ramugondo and the BAC took UCT to court opposing the appointment.

They described Lange’s appointment instead of Ramugondo as an act of institutional racism and Lange as a “less qualified” “white academic associate professor”. Their court action emphasized inter alia that Lange’s professional background is not based on face-to-face undergraduate education and post-graduate student supervision. Nevertheless, Lange is a highly regarded experienced administrator with research interests in the philosophy and politics of education focusing on the meanings and possibilities of transformation, especially at curricular level.

Sadly, soon after Phakeng succeeded Price and Vision 2030 was in its embryonic stages, DVC Lange opposed, then outright rejected UCT’s transformational “new normal”. She made her professional position vis-à-vis UCT’s transformation clear as far back as July 2018 in an opening address at a conference on teaching and learning.

Pedagogies of presence

Lange’s vision for transforming UCT is antithetical to that embodied in Vision 2030. She maintains that, at the heart of the change needed in the university’s teaching and learning, is what Cameroonian philosopher, political theorist and public intellectual Achille Mbembe refers to as “pedagogies of presence” (POP), a “set of mental dispositions”.

To effect this alternative transformation, UCT’s academics need to “become critical agents in defying the tacit institutional curriculum, first, by challenging UCT’s self-satisfaction with the current notions of excellence”.

Lange’s POP transformation is to be preferred for three reasons. First, transformation is essential because “academic success at UCT is uneven and reflects race and class privilege.” “Second, the interface between students’ psychosocial and academic worlds is mediated by several services and infrastructures that are not in sync”. Some even “operate as if the others did not exist”. And third, “the curriculum, its content, pedagogy and organisation, is ill-suited to UCT’s students, and requires leadership in its redesign”.

To tackle the above reality, Lange urged the academic community to harness the critical impetus of the Fallist movements to initiate, at departmental level, curricular reviews that challenge the institutional curriculum.

Lange’s POP “Africanised curriculum” represents an “affirmation of the students’ blackness, bodies, identities, intergenerational knowledge and direct experience of the world”. Its infusion “requires a countermovement” that acknowledges an identity and privilege of whites that is lacking in blacks. However, for changes in the institutional curriculum to be “profound, socially productive and worthwhile”, it must not only focus on black students and black academics.”

Pushing for POP-transformation almost certainly did not endear her to her line-manager – the VC.

Their severely strained professional relationship was revealed unequivocally and unexpectedly on 30 September 2022 – five months after vacating her DVC post – when Lange was invited/allowed (by whom?) to read a letter during a meeting of UCT’s Senate held in Phakeng’s absence and elements of it were leaked to the media.

In her missive, Lange dropped a bombshell that now states that she feels “obliged” to break a non-disclosure agreement agreed upon her departure as DVC. In the letter, she alleges that she had been “forced” out of her DVC position by Ngonyama at Phakeng’s behest.

DM then speculated that Phakeng and Ngonyama may have deliberately breached fundamental good governance by misleading UCT’s Senate about the manner of Lange’s agreement to shift from her DVC post to one in CHED.

For this, VC Phakeng – who had recently been overwhelmingly supported by Senate to serve a second term – and Ngonyama should be held accountable by the state through the Minister of Education.

If there were any doubt about Lange’s views on Vision 2030, she re-iterated her opposition unambiguously in an interview, published on the same day as the DM “investigation”.

She said: The “new normal” policy does not take into account that the “limit to the new normal is the old normal: a model of economic development that increases inequality as part of its DNA”. None of the “current curricular fads” being proposed for the future of higher education “will solve the problem”.

In short, this “platformisation” of higher education is a “market opportunity blind to unequal realities in communities” that are embedded within social systems. Furthermore, platformised higher education is destined to become a “private, individual matter away from institutional practices and the collective experiences of cohorts of students”. It will “undo education as both socialisation into a community and as a social responsibility” and “make universities complicit in the reproduction of some of the most dangerous features of the 21st century global culture: isolation and individualism, not to mention the terrible mental health consequences”.

This ‘new normal’ is thus fraught with “many dangers, moral contradictions and social pitfalls”. It is a “pharmakon” (a mixture of remedy and poison).

Lange’s alternative to Vision 2030 does fit in perfectly within an ‘anti-racism’ narrative “positioning UCT away from white mythologies, creating the possibility of the development of new, intersective relationships, new forms of learning and new respect for different modes of knowledge”.

Given this profound, implacable, epistemological conflict between VC Phakeng and now former DVC Lange and the VC’s statutory responsibilities to review academic programs, supervise senior staff and address performance issues, it is clear that they could no longer work in tandem and Lange’s departure from the DVC Teaching and Learning post – but not UCT – was justifiable, indeed necessary for the constructive transformation of UCT via Vision 2030.

Lange’s role in real staffing losses

Rather than being forced out of UCT, DVC Lange may have played key and questionable roles in literally tragic, real losses of fellow senior members of UCT’s leadership team.

These are not mentioned the DM investigation.

During 2018, UCT’s first black Dean of Law and an internationally highly respected constitutional legal scholar‚ Professor Penelope “Penny” Andrews‚ was being bullied and smeared with “false and defamatory” allegations of irregular expenditure by unnamed UCT insiders acting at the behest of law-breaking Fallists.

Andrews wrote to her line-manager‚ DVC Lange, voicing her “alarm and distress” about the “defamatory comments” saying: “I am being vilified on the basis of lies — and I need you not to be silent in the face of this smear campaign.”

Lange’s silence on this matter is ‘deafening’ and, in the end, Andrews had no choice but to resign. She made her position crystal clear:

“It is my opinion that no prior dean has been subjected to this level of vilification and mistrust‚ and I am being punished for shedding light on several issues that have made some [insiders?] in the law faculty uncomfortable.”

The issues about which she had been outspoken included academic transformation‚ race and student leadership. After Andrews was allegedly asked to leave UCT [by Lange/Price?], she was forced to “resign when she saw she had no choice”.

Lost to UCT and South Africa, Penny is now a Distinguished Professor of Law at New York Law School.

Then there is another dean, Prof. Bongani Mayosi.

Like with Penny Andrews, Fallists – backed by unnamed insiders [with the noteworthy exception of BAC member? Lydia Cairncross] within UCT – attacked him when he was unable/unwilling to meet their demands.

Like with Penny Andrews, his line-manager was DVC Lange.

In the end, in the words of Mayosi’s close family: Fallists “vandalised his soul and unravelled him”; “their personal insults and abuse cut him to the core”; and they “treated [him] as the enemy”.

Fallists bullied him to death while some powerful UCT insiders did nothing.

One of the key questions posed by the Inquiry Panel into the events surrounding and causing Mayosi’s demise was: “Why a deterioration in health that was evident to so many people [even from the health sector] was not reported or arrested in time.”

This question remains unanswered, especially by his then line-manager.

What Lange did do was to ask VC Price to prepare a still confidential report on the matter. The only key point disclosed so far from this report is that Mayosi submitted his resignation, apparently reversed his decision and asked for these actions to be kept confidential. This tidbit effectively buffers Lange, Price and anti-Mayosi insiders from being held accountable for their inaction and deplorable actions.

In sharp contrast, according to the Inquiry, then DVC Phakeng took point in developing a proposal to create a new position for him under the title of Pro Vice-Chancellor in which he would lead an African Centre of Excellence in Poverty, This was done in “a genuine desire to help Professor Mayosi resolve his distress in the deanship in a dignified and sustainable way” and relieve him of the relentless bullying and give him a new lease on life.

However, on 23 July 2018, when this PVC proposal was about to be announced, Phakeng received a last-minute call from Lange which said, in effect: “Hold off the announcement – the time is not right”. The situation is “fragile”.

VC Phakeng chose to respect Lange’s last-minute advice, given that she was Mayosi’s line-manager and had also been closely involved with the PVC project from early on.

Given this combination of action and inaction and the fact that there is no evidence that any of the behind-the-scenes detail ever properly explained to Mayosi personally by his line-manager, the Panel summarized the effect of the Lange-sparked “U-turn” on the PVC proposal:

“The about-turn in announcing his appointment must have been devastating”.

Four days later, the despondent Mayosi committed suicide.

One more interaction between Mayosi and Lange bears mention. His wife, Professor Nonhlanhla Khumalo, stated that, on 4 July 2018, her husband met with line-manager Lange seeking clearance to take his accumulated sabbatical leave, as a prelude to leaving the deanship. This would have afforded him an opportunity to compose himself and arrange faculty matters to his satisfaction. No such clearance was given and Prof. Khumalo surmised that his request for desperately needed leave had been denied.

But there is more beyond Lange.

There are two other alleged leadership ‘losses’ relating to the ‘Lange Affair’ that the DM maintains have a wider resonance and broader implications within P&N’s “culture of fear and secrecy”.

The Ombud

Another ‘bullying bombshell’ was an unauthorized personal report issued without notice on 9 July 2020 – 48 hours before the newly constituted UCT Council was due elect its leadership – by Ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa. This was done without permission from Council and against legal advice to UCT that her actions could cause permanent and irreparable damage to the Vice-Chancellor’s office and to the governance and stability of UCT. Yet, Makamandela-Mguqulwa defiantly described her document as a “standard deliverable” and “an honest reflection on my experiences within the reporting period”.

In fact, the Report was ‘non-standard’. Its unprecedented preamble/introduction focuses on an array of unsubstantiated, serious, work-related and confidential “complaints and accuses individuals of wrongdoing. In fact, there were 37 complainants/accusers – some of whom were students who committed plagiarism – from a potential population 31000 students and staff and 300000+ alumni. Based on this inaccessible evidence, UCT’s Executive – especially VC Phakeng – are described as being “combative and violent” and of repeated “bullying” of members of UCT’s community.

After a series of acrimonious exchanges with Council, the Ombud was sanctioned for this inappropriate behaviour and left UCT after being allowed to serve out the remainder of her contract. She may be lost, but she was not fired, and her departure was not forced.

DVC Transformation

In February 2021, the DVC for Transformation, eminent environmental law professor and vice-chairperson of the Black Academic Caucus, Loretta Feris, voluntarily vacated her post. She ceased work as DVC in March, was granted sabbatical leave from 1April until 31 January 2022 and, like Lange, was granted a payout. Thereafter, she returned to her professorial post within the Faculty of Law.

In her effusive sendoff, VC Phakeng praised Feris for her many contributions to UCT. Key amongst these were her involvement with:

  1. chairing Price’s Rapid Response Task Team;
  2. the Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG);
  3. ‘protesting/demanding’ Fallists;
  4. representing the UCT Executive on the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission Steering Committee; and
  5. representing the Executive in interactions with the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission.

But, the only thing rapid about Feris’ actions was capitulation to Fallist demands, e.g. for financial and academic exclusions when they violated the November 2016 Agreement by invading the Mafeje Room. She appealed against this unacceptable behaviour by Fallist invaders and their non-UCT-based outsiders. Fallists and the outsiders ignored her appeals, stayed put and she ended up acceding to their demands to override carefully considered decisions taken within UCT’s faculties.

The overriding of academic exclusions in particular was an extraordinary slight upon the members of the faculty committees, since it created the impression that corrective action was being taken due to incompetence or malfeasance of subject experts.

In short, a failed chemistry student’s eligibility for readmission could be assessed better by a bureaucrat in Bremner Building than a departmental subject-specialist professor of chemistry.

To peacefully protest this unwise policy, members of the Science Faculty Readmission Appeals Committee resigned en masse and refused to serve again.

Feris’ vision of dynamic decolonization

Feris describes decolonization at UCT as a dynamic (never-ending?) transformation into “a pluri-versal space” “where there is more than one central truth, where there is more than one dominant culture and where there is more than one way of being as a person”.

Like Lange, Feris’ views on decolonized transformation are influenced strongly by Achille Mbembe. Accordingly, she views a’ “pluriversity” as a deconstructed/democratized, ‘inclusivized’ entity with reduced pedagogical isolation, hierarchical structure and subject focus. All decolonized curricula should incorporate elements that involve socio-economic experiences and politics of oppressed masses.

In short, transforming UCT into a pluriversity requires a complete political, economic, social and intellectual change of higher education elaborating on the notions of “De-Westernization” and “Africanization”.

To challenge the “central truth” of science at UCT, Feris and the CCWG invited mathematics decolonizer Prof. Chandra Raju to re-examine of ways of docolonizing maths and physics.

Raju, a mathematician and computer scientist, believes that the traditional, ‘Western’ science based on the perspective that science is objective and universal has no relevance in a post-colonial world. For much more on the ‘Raju Affair’ see here, here, here, here.

A young UCT mathematics lecturer standing (the room was packed) next to me at one of Raju presentations left in a huff five minutes into the talk commenting: “snake oil salesman”.

The Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission Steering Committee, which absorbed much of Feris’ time focused more on proving that UCT was and still is institutionally racist, justifying the violence committed by – and granting amnesties to – Fallists than “unpacking the limits of acceptable protest”.

What actually happened?

VC Phakeng inherited a wounded, wannabe ‘pluriversity’ unjustly branded as systemically racist; run by a kowtowing cohort of visionless leaders and a Senate populated by post-modernists who thrive in committees; and funded by disillusioned submissive scientists, medics and engineers intimidated by anarchistic Fallist vandals guided by a secretive Black Academic Caucus and aided, abetted and amnestied by a comedic Council.

As for Phakeng, now that she is in a position to effect re-constructive change that will benefit her beloved students and young academics willing to collaborate, debate and engage in the pursuit of elusive truth instead a race-ridden, toxic gemors of those who linger for the class/race stratified past and/or want to impose race-base affirmative/deformative revenge under the guise of “anti-racism”.

I will address the matter of institutional toxicity in Part 2.

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2 comments

  1. Malinda Nel Reply

    What a shocking world in South Africa and basically, throughout the whole of Africa. How low can you go? Maybe there should be no more universities here at all. The black mind does not want them. The black mind obviously wants a new Haiti right here. Nothing more.

  2. Dr Stranger KGAMPHE Reply

    This is not helping the reputation of UCT…reassurance of our national transformation imperatives and lacks parental inclusion and concerns.


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