The unprincipled and now ‘unprincipaled’ University of Cape Town: Chronicling helter-skelter governance, racialism and hyper-decolonization
Part 1: Setting the scene.
The Vice Chancellor (VC) of the University of Cape Town (UCT) is the most senior executive leader and academic principal of the university and is responsible for determining the UCT’s strategic goals and ensuring their implementation. However, since at least 2015, UCT’s VCs have arguably appeased, capitulated to, and colluded and ultimately collaborated with, law-breaking students and their radical academic and extra-UCT political backers (puppeteers?).
These ‘Fallists’ have, repeatedly and with impunity:
- intimidated, defamed and physically and sexually demeaned and assaulted UCT’s law-abiding and peace+education-loving staff and students;
- shut down both free speech and Her campuses; and
- fire-bombed vehicles, the VC’s office and irreplaceable artwork.
Finally, on 17 February 2023 it was reported (but not by UCT) that – owing to the “ongoing leadership crisis at the university, which has negatively impacted the institution’s functionality and has directly exacerbated the turmoil unfolding across campus” – eminent scientific academic and educator VC Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng had been suspended as VC. Phakeng’s apparent dramatic exit came amid destructive student protests, a governance crisis and alleged “bullying” of senior staff that has led to an exodus of senior academics and executive members from the university during her tenure. At the core of the allegations against Phakeng is the claim that Phakeng and Council Chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama lied about the true reasons for the departure of former deputy vice-chancellor Lis Lange. Also, in 2020, the university’s also-now-former ombud, Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, accused Phakeng of being a bully – who allegedly kept a black book with the names of her “enemies” – and the university of covering up Phakeng’s bullying.
However, on 22 February 2023, it was also leaked that UCT’s Council – the governing body responsible for determining UCT’s mission, objectives, goals, strategies and policies and for ensuring an environment conducive to efficient, effective, economical and ethical attainment of these goals – had used both a ‘carrot’ (a massive ‘golden handshake’) and ‘stick’ (threat of immediate suspension) to secure the removal Phakeng as of 3 March. In signing a settlement, Phakeng would “take early retirement”, “step down quietly” and waive her right to further litigation of any kind against UCT. This is, in effect, a non-discloser agreement that would prevent her from ‘telling her side of the story’.
Other reports on 23+24 February, (still not by UCT) suggest that both Phakeng and UCT confirmed that she is actually taking “early retirement”, but declined to comment on the details of the agreement.
To add to this confusion, back on 9 February, UCT had announced that Council had established an Independent Investigation Panel to consider and investigate issues of governance that have affected and are affecting the university, especially vis-à-vis alleged bullying and lying. More specifically, Phakeng and Ngonyama mislead the university’s executive and senate about the reasons for the departure of Lange. They claimed Lange had resigned for personal reasons. Lange (like Makamandela-Mguqulwa) claimed she had been pushed out.
On 16 February there was a call sent to current and former members of staff as well as current and previous members of UCT’s Council to contact the Panel if they believe that they are able to offer information that is relevant to the work of the Panel and where such input falls within the terms of reference that the UCT Council has set for the Panel. Persons who wished to contact the Panel directly could do so by writing to email@example.com.
The bad news is that the deadline for receipt of submissions was 24 February 2023.
In yet another non-UCT-sourced piece published on 22 February, Prof. Jonathan Jansen, internationally renowned expert in education and past rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State. also commented on chaos in UCT’s leadership. He concluded that, with Phakeng’s departure, UCT has “landed on its feet despite an unprecedented challenge to leadership stability”, but also asked “How did UCT end up in this tragic situation?”
On 24 February the Cape Times reported that several Members of Parliament had joined the fray, urging Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande to intervene at UCT vis-à-vis Phakeng’s alleged suspension and her future at the university. Al Jama-ah MP Ganief Hendricks said transformation in universities was important and the party was disappointed by the treatment Phakeng had received. “The removal of the vice-chancellor is disappointing and this is because she is not toeing the line of the white masses. I remember this happened also to Dr Archie Mafeje, who was removed by white management. The minister has not been to UCT. He should be there to give leadership. The minister cannot be toothless in this matter”.
EFF MP Naledi Chirwa said Phakeng, as a black woman academic, “has been bullied into resigning as a lecturer and a vice-chancellor because the real supervisors of our country are unhappy about how we dress and our blackness”.
DA MP Nomsa Tarabella-Marchesi said: “As the committee, we are under the impression that an investigation is under way which will emanate into a report. However, a quick decision was made… as the DA and committee believe we need to be brought into confidence (about) the reason for this outcome and how the institution of learning will be assisted going forward to deal with the situation.”
Meanwhile, UCT’s Black Academic Caucus (BAC) expressed shock at claims that Phakeng would not return for her second term and said the Independent Panel investigation was crucial now more than ever. Its spokesperson BAC secretary Dr Sabelo Hadebe said:
“We would like to implore the council to not impede the work of the independent panel led by a retired Judge (Lex) Mpati. The panel should not only investigate the allegations against the former VC and chair of the council but the complicity of the council in the deterioration of leadership and management at the university across all levels, including the conduct of the university senate.”
“We urge the panel to release its terms of reference and the scope of its investigations and to broadly consult academic staff, support staff and students,”
“We hope that the panel will conduct its work in keeping with these fundamental values of our justice system.”
“UCT needs an honest account of the events that have precipitated this unfortunate early departure of the VC”.
Most recently, 24 February, , Chair Ngonyama issued a PRIVATE & CONFIDENTIAL INTERNAL MEMORANDUM confirming Phakeng’s imminent departure. It does not outline the details of the agreement, a possible revised mandate for the Independent Investigation Panel, or the appointment of an interim Vice-Chancellor to hold office until such time that a new Vice-Chancellor is appointed.
So, there is a dire need for information on why and how the “tragically dysfunctional” UCT Executive came to be and is experiencing the current “exacerbated turmoil” that necessitates the precipitous and incredibly costly removal of VC Phakeng.
I feel that I am equipped to help provide information since 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of my academic adventure at Africa’s premier centre of tertiary education and research. It began with PhD study and progressed – via merit-based promotion through the ranks – from junior lecturer to full professor, earning a National Research Foundation B Rating (internationally acclaimed researcher) and election as a UCT Fellow. Moreover, since drifting into my dotage as an emeritus professor, I have commented extensively (ca 250 articles) on UCT’s history dating from Cecil Rhodes’ vision for a national university and his bequest of land to create it, through the ‘troubles’ that began in 2015, to today’s chaotic turmoil.
My pieces can be found by searching my blog site (timguineacrowe.blogspot.com) and the publications Politicsweb and Rational Standard.
In the beginning
UCT’s ‘tragic situation’ has its roots during the short (1996-99) reign of VC Dr Mamphela Ramphele. Rather than using persuasion and nuance, amongst other dealings with academics, she hosted regular braais at which she, all the DVCs and highly paid, centralized, corporate, non-academic ‘Executive Directors’ “grilled” HoDs vis-a-vis departmental performance. From then on, Bremner Admin Building took on an increasingly business-like structure which was supposed to accelerate constructive ‘decolonization’.
Ramphele also took steps to lessen the authority of the Registrar and, under her firm guidance, she and her centralized managers began to challenge (usurp?) academic authority of Deans and HoDs, especially in matters of curriculum planning, departmental expenditure and the appointment of staff.
Another major shakeup was the enforced(?) merger of several small faculties to form a single mega-Humanities Faculty. This consolidation promoted the development of collective worshippers of militant decolonist activists, e.g. Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon, and radical white, male, European philosophers. Some scary examples.
Michel Foucault – The underlying theme his works is that “power”, rather than restricting “knowledge”, ubiquitously controls, defines and develops it relationally, past and present.
Antonio Gramsci – A neo-Marxist who favoured the development of “organic intellectuals” (whose ideas are derived from the “oppressed masses”) to replace “traditional”, elitist, Ph.D.-educated scholars at universities. He viewed the university as an instrument of domination that represents the interests of capital and of the ruling class. To undermine universities, he developed the concept of cultural hegemony to explain how the state accomplishes this, and advocated for a “war of position” in which oppressed peoples would work to disrupt hegemonic forces.
Jacques Derrida – He is best known for developing a nebulous form of analysis known as deconstruction. Such analysis is necessary because existence is inherently and irreducibly complex, unstable, and impossible to characterize with any conception of transcendental truths, universal principles, laws, let alone solutions. “There is no out-of-context” only just endless deconstruction of plural truths that have no meaning unless considered in relation to one another situationally over time and space.
Martin Heidegger – During the 1920s, He published one of the most influential books in the history of philosophy, Being and Time, that argued that the human condition has little connection with intellectual concepts. There is only the “identity” of “true selves” and the “lived experience of mood”. For him, being, existence and identity – in German, Dasein – is grasped first and foremost not by the rational mind, but by the emotions that determine the very shape and texture of the world in which we live. Six years later, as a member of the Nazi Party and rector of Freiburg University, he presided over a public bonfire of “un-German” books.
In short, many of the self-described non-racial, academic pro-Fallists at UCT seem to be post-humanists who seek to deconstruct UCT. They arguably are attempting to ‘flatten’ the ontological supremacy that humans gave themselves after the Enlightenment and is epitomized in a world-ranked UCT, with the goal to reducing our ontological ‘weight’ to that of other (hominin?) entities.
Governance reorganization and development
Ramphele was also critical of UCT’s Council controlled by “an old boys network that had paid more attention to continuing traditions than to management and maintenance”. This legacy of neo-colonialism frustrated her efforts to transform the university. To cope with this, she supported and instigated the transformation of Council into a broadly representative and effective governance agent, thereby potentially benefitting her successors. Indeed, in one of her final addresses, she stressed:
“I think that possibly the thing I am most proud of is changing the institutional culture of UCT.”
Sadly, Council has become infiltrated by individuals who appear to condone (or be intimidated by) actions of radical pro-Fallists.
Violence and illegal protest
During Ramphele’s administration, violence on campus declined markedly. The rare instances of illegal protest, intimidation and destruction of university property were dealt with decisively. The few incidences of student indiscipline that could not be handled within faculties were dealt with by university-wide structures run jointly by democratically elected students and staff who understood the educational process and who were resolutely dedicated to academic freedom.
When dealing with student demands, unlike recent VCs, Ramphele had a bottom-line vis-à-vis student involvement with university policy:
“Given their status as a transient population … students cannot be allowed to participate in decisions where conflicts of interest are so glaring as to make a mockery of the integrity of higher-education institutions.”
After Ramphele’s unanticipated departure, she was succeeded by Prof. Njabulo Ndebele, a highly experienced scholar and university administrator. Unlike Ramphele, he was perceived as the universal ‘pacifier’. He attempted to embrace the positive elements of the past while promoting demographic and academic ‘inclusivity’. Key beneficiaries during his administration included ‘Core’ academics (who pushed for the continued primacy of academic excellence and merit-based equity) and, to a lesser extent, ‘progressive’ academics and students who demanded pedagogical and demographic ‘inclusivity’ and nebulously defined/motivated ‘decolonization’. His mixed management strategy resulted in massive increases in the population of inadequately supported, educationally ‘disabled’ (by the now highly dysfunctional Basic Education System) first-year-student ‘People-of-Colour’ (PoC).
Sadly, this strategy was not complemented by a concomitant increase in the population of education-oriented academics (let alone ‘progressive’ ones) and key support staff necessary to mentor/nurture the PoC students or making constructive changes in curricula and/or teaching methods.
The key act of academic transformation by the Ndebele Team designed to mentor/nurture the PoC students was the implementation of the aggregation of the Academic Development Programme (ADP) and some other components involving learning into a separate, new, ‘horizontal’, faculty-like entity, the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED). In retrospect, many academics and ADP students whom I have interviewed feel that the creation of CHED was a wrong decision since it further reduced demands for academic support/ development on the Core Departments and the School of Education. Core departments could now even more effectively avoid adapting their staff and curricula to deal decisively and constructively with decolonization.
Ndebele’s administration was also characterized by a brutal murder on campus – an unprovoked attack on Mathematics Prof. Brian Hahn in January 2005 by a disgruntled, affirmative-action Black lecturer. At the time of the attack, SRC president Nqobizitha Mlilo stated that this incident is a reflection of a “deep flaw in the nature of our relations as a community across race, gender, student and staff lines”. Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela later stated: “What really concerns me is why we are, when we are faced with a violent murder on this campus, not talking about, first of all, what led to this incident, and not talking about why the only reaction that is vocal about this incident is reaction that seems to be condoning this behaviour”. There was never any “talking about”, let alone investigation of the “nature of relations”.
Perhaps most disturbingly, by 2015, Wits Prof. Pumla Gqola characterized Brian’s murder as an act of “self-defence”.
Exposing UCT’s institutional ‘handicap’
One of Ndebele’s major administrative achievements was commissioning a 2007 survey: Matters pertaining to heads of academic departments at the University of Cape Town. The survey was headed by Emeritus Prof. VC ‘Cliff’ Moran (a highly respected former UCT Dean of Science) in collaboration with Prof. Cheryl de la Rey (DVC for Research) and Assoc. Prof. Andy Duncan, one of UCT’s most savvy senior academics.
Key findings of the Moran Report are:
- The University can contribute fully to the social and economic development of South Africa only if it is internationally competitive. This requires that the institution “Promotes academic excellence and the attainment of the institutional goal of becoming a world-class African University”. In this respect the University is only reasonably placed, and there is considerable room for improvement.
- The number and demographic mix of its graduates can best contribute to the country’s needs if the qualifications earned by its undergraduate and postgraduate students have increasing value and currency, locally and globally.
- The above objectives can be realised only if the academic departments in the University are functioning optimally. This in itself is possible only if the HoDs pursue a clear plan for the development of teaching and research in their respective disciplines and only if they are willing, motivated and effective academic leaders, managers, and administrators. Presently the performance of the majority of the academic departments is perceived by many at UCT as being sub-optimal and it is common cause that many, but not all, of the HoDs at the institution are, for various reasons, reluctant to do the job, demoralised and frustrated.
- Without the concerted will of the University at large to acknowledge the centrality of academic departments as the cornerstone of the institution, and to bring academic departments and HoDs back into the main stream of the University’s focus and activities, the University cannot enhance the value of its degrees, nor can it achieve its mission.
In short, the inordinate power concentrated in the ‘managerializing’, ‘fiscally-focused’, ‘commodified’, centralized administration in Bremner Building needs to return to academics and students, the people who are responsible for UCT’s core ‘business’ – education and research.
Neither VC Ndebele nor his successor acted decisively on the findings of the ‘Moran Report’.
This failure to act set the scene for the turmoil to come.
For an evidence-based account of what happened and how it might be remedied read Part 2 of this series.