Is UCT Being Murdered?

The decline of UCT emulates Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Its ‘murder’ has been and continues to be perpetrated by multiple individuals and, ‘collectively’, by infiltrated long-extant bodies (including its Students’ Representative Council – SRC, Senate and institutional Council) and cabals (e.g. the...

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UCT Murdered executioner

The decline of UCT emulates Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Its ‘murder’ has been and continues to be perpetrated by multiple individuals and, ‘collectively’, by infiltrated long-extant bodies (including its Students’ Representative Council – SRC, Senate and institutional Council) and cabals (e.g. the formally-recognized secretive and racially focused Black Academic Caucus – BAC).

In particular, the SRC is dominated by members of the Economic Freedom Front Students’ Command (EFF-SC) and is part-and-parcel of the Economic Freedom Front, a radical, militant, revolutionary, leftist, anti-capitalist, xenophobic(?) political party that draws inspiration from the broad Marxist-Leninist and Fanonian schools of thought. Its authoritarian leadership demands fealty from its members and supporters.

Since the ‘rise’ of Fallism, meetings of UCT’s Senate are often poorly attended and are characterized by discord between factions that have potentially legitimate, but as yet undebated, differences and, sadly, loose affiliations driven more by multifarious, scary, fuzzy-identity-based ideologies.

UCT’s institutional Council is, if anything, in even greater disarray. It is highly factionalized and has recently, with short shrift, questionably axed UCT’s vice-chancellor and the Council chair- and deputy chairpersons. Moreover, three of its 30 members are appointed by the SRC, but currently are the only ones not identified by name. Two recent SRC-appointees, Kumkani Goqoza and Sihle Lonzi, appear to be (or were) UCT students and the former was/is the SRC Treasurer General. Lonzi was/is a member of the EFF-SC and an unwavering supporter of EFF policies. He ends one of his provocative opinion pieces with a Cultural Revolution-related quote from Chairman Mao.

The third, Lwazi Lushaba, is a 50+ year-old UCT lecturer who has never been a student at UCT and is infamous for disturbing comments made during lectures:

“I tell them (first year Political Science students), there is no possibility of friendship between you as a Black person and you as a White person.” In his lecture on the “Black Schema”, he refers to alienation that causes black people to disconnect from their own bodies that are not ‘good enough’ or ‘white enough’. They live in an ‘existential vacuum’ is formed where they experience profound anxiety and despair. When commenting on the Holocaust, he stated that “Hitler committed no crime. All Hitler did was to do to white people what white people had normally reserved for black people.”

On a larger scale, Lushaba set the Humanities Faculty into turmoil when he stomped on ballot boxes and verbally and physically attacked fellow academics while objecting to a non-South-African ‘Black’ woman being elected Dean. For this, was reprimanded by the Phakeng-led UCT Executive for “unacceptable, inappropriate and disrespectful conduct”.

The key groups of people whose acts impact UCT at one extreme are politicians (e.g. Julius Malema and his EFF-SC), bitter alumni, disgruntled staff, and desperate students who reject the concept, vision, creation and continued existence of a university founded on the unfettered, curiosity-logic-driven, evidence-based pursuit of objective Truth. They are the antithesis of people who ‘identify’ as open-minded, principled human beings willing to engage in civil discussion, free exchange of ideas and rollicking debate and seek academic and professional success based on excellence and merit founded on sifting through identity-unlinked epistemological diversity.

Others view merit and truth as “controversial” concepts or simply reject them outright as hollow and hurtful social constructs created to suit the purposes of a perverse lingering hegemony. They would have the systemically racist/sexist/ageist/ patriarchal/etc. UCT dismantled/erased. They advocate deconstructively transforming Her into a follow-on high school that merely extends the current South African educational ‘escalator’, admitting and awarding diplomas to students on the basis of DEI provided that they adopt Wokism, Anti-racism or other favoured -isms, and hang on long enough – often incurring massive debt – despite poor academic performance.

Still others favour decolonizing Her into a post-modernistic “pluriversity” that must equitably value the full spectrum of alternative, identity-derived ‘truths’ that must be discussed endlessly – not debated – by ‘inactivists’ within ever-changing ‘context’. Sadly, they fail to offer, let alone follow, any clearly defined and meaningful progressive path toward commonly held goals. In short, “anything goes” depending on ‘context’ and, especially, power.

Still more others promote the ideology of the day (or one dredged up from the past) chosen based on power-driven identity defined by ‘race’, gender, age, nationality, etc.

No matter who strikes the mortal blows, like the suspects on the Orient Express, all are arguably guilty of UCT’s attempted ‘murder’ in one way or another.

Roots of the rot

The roots of destructive deconstruction at UCT really took hold in the waning years of the 20th century during the otherwise progressively transformational VC-ship of Mamphela Ramphele (1996-2000).Ramphele chose not to follow the transitioning pathway advocated by the enlightened educator/researcher/administrator VC Stuart Saunders (1981-1996). Ramphele summarily excluded Saunders and profoundly changed UCT’s structure AND culture. Some of this ‘revolution’ made good sense, for example her anti-sexism and pro-merit-based excellence and especially her 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.”

However, some transformation set the stage for violent Fallism, Anti-racism and aggressive Deconstructive Decolonization. Then, after only three years of service, Ramphele abruptly resigned and left the transformed stage. Had she hung on to serve two full terms, things may have evolved differently and constructively.

Ramphele’s successor, Njabulo Ndebele (2000-2008) tried to calm Ramphele’s ‘Thatcher’-like UCT down. He attempted to embrace the positive elements of the past while promoting demographic and academic ‘inclusivity’. Sadly, he also ushered in further increases in the admission of educationally disabled undergrads and was at the helm when a disgruntled affirmative-action lecturer brutally beat a professor to death in the Maths Building.

One of Ndebele’s many positive actions was to commission a study of university governance by a former Dean of Science and Cheryl de la Rey (eminent researcher on race and gender, especially the construction of gender and gender-based violence, professor of psychology and Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research). Its key recommendations were that the inordinate power concentrated in the managerializing, fiscally-focused, commodified, centralized administration needed to return to faculty and department heads, academics and students – the people who are, in reality, responsible for UCT’s core business – education and research – and ESPECIALLY Her high international ranking.

Neither VC Ndebele nor his successors acted decisively on the findings and recommendations of the Del la Rey Report’

Ndebele’s successor, Max Price (2008-2018), is a medical doctor/administrator/consultant with little experience – let alone track record – as an educator or peer-review-published researcher. Candidates who didn’t even make the VC short list included the current interim VC Daya Reddy (eminent NRF A+ rated educator, researcher, and UCT/international leader and administrator) and Jonathan Jansen (eventual VC of Free State University and major commentator on – and force in – South African education and university governance). However, with strong personal support from the Chair of Council and of the selection committee at the time, Price was unexpectedly chosen over the highly relevantly experienced and academically sound DVC del la Rey. She left UCT to become the highly praised, constructively transformational VC of the University of Pretoria.

During his decade in power, Price and his closely controlled and coordinated (dominated?) executive team employed a variation of a strategy explicated by Benito Mussolini. This strategy is simple: “if you consolidate power by plucking a chicken one feather at a time, people don’t notice”. It’s application allowed the Price Administration to undermine, if not abandon, the rule of law at UCT and VC TB Davie’s vision for a “Real” anti-apartheid UCT and the universal principles upon which modern universities are based. This strategy was facilitated by creating and promoting “parallel” structures (eschewed by VC Saunders) and people who undermined UCT institutionally and catered to and ultimately colluded with destructive Fallists.

In short, Price followed Marx’s philosophy (Groucho, not Karl). “If you don’t like my principles, I have others.” Indeed, in sharp contrast to his predecessors, Price’s UCT had followed the advice of Suellen Shay and “engaged with chaos”. According to his successor, the highly touted (at least at the time) Mamokgethi Phakeng she was left a university “in tatters”.

Moreover, Price left Phakeng a proto-pluriv-anti-racial-isity populated largely by Price-appointed senior administrators. Price-appointees inherited by Phakeng (e.g. Ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, Transformation DVC Prof. Loretta Feris, Teaching & Learning DVC Assoc. Prof. Lis Lange and Executive Director Dr Russell Ally) steadfastly maintained Price’s pro-Fallist, anti-racial, ‘plucking’ strategy. This generated clashes between them and, in the end, resulted in their and, ultimately, Phakeng’s departure from their posts.

More specifically, the appointment of the “seemingly underqualified, and a patently non-equity” Lis Lange as DVC Teaching & Learning had initially been branded as an illegal and racist process by an unsuccessful internal applicant (Elelwani Ramugondo) and the BAC, who took UCT to court (unsuccessfully) opposing the appointment. Ramugondo is a BAC Founder Member and is now the resolutely ‘anti-racist’ DVC for Transformation. Indeed, at the time of the court action, Ramugondo characterized those running UCT as unconscious racists: “Racists within an organisation that is experienced as racist by those who are marginalised, are unable to recognise the problem themselves.”

Literally from day 1, the Phakeng Administration was fraught with highly controversial, disastrous and (far too often) tragic events. These are chronicled in detail in the social media, especially in Rational Standard (search “Tim Crowe Rational Standard author”), but here are some ‘low-lights’:

  1. the character assassination (and suicide) of Bongani Mayosi – the highly internationally honoured, universally promoted, Price-appointed Dean of Health Sciences – by radical student Fallists and some (BAC-connected?) academics. (NB Mayosi embodied black academic excellence and was a prominent symbol of constructive transformation at UCT. His cutting-edge research, leadership role in various health professional forums in the country and the continent as well as across the world” singled him out as a quintessential 21st Century academic. His family stated that Fallist students “vandalised his soul and unraveled him. Their personal insults and abuse cut him to the core, were offensive to his values and were the opposite of everything he was about.” In short, Mayosi was ‘bullied’ to death.);
  2. the questionable actions and inactions in the “Mayosi Affair” by his line-manager (DVC Lis Lange – whose line-manager was Price);
  3. a report cited by an article in Nature, “the world’s most cited scientific journal”, that pronounced that UCT always was – and remains – systemically and institutionally “entrenched with racism“ founded in a “divisive legacy of colonialism” that needs to be “erased”;
  4. the unauthorized publication of a personal report for the period by the UCT Ombud that accused Phakeng of bullying, silencing, undermining, rebuking and/or unfairly treating 37 anonymous and confidential complainants from the 200000+ members of UCT’s Community. (BTW three of the anonymous/confidential complaints involved student plagiarism and one was from the Ombud herself.);
  5. the publication of a non-peer-reviewed, highly controversial and (to my mind) fatally flawed “commentary” in South African Journal of Science that “tentatively” concluded that phenotypically “Black” students at UCT choose not to study biology (organismal?) and conservation biology in particular because they are “materialistic”. (Phakeng was accused of unethical behaviour by trying to have the commentary retracted for its racist perspective and conclusions. Her condemnation of what amounted to pseudo-science was shared by the Dean of Science – a black eminent conservation biologist – and the BAC.);
  6. allegations that diminutive Phakeng is a temperamental, narcissistic, self-promoting bully who intimidated some staff by threatening to list them in her “Little Black Book” and, like the Red Queen in the Alice in Wonderland films, is a completely spoilt, callous, arrogant and demanding person who coerces her courtiers to agree with every word she says, and known for commanding “Off with his head!“ when dealing with those who threaten her power.);
  7. and MOST PROMINENTLY for her alleged role in constructively dismissing and/or inappropriately reprimanding/intimidating staff, most of whom accepted lucrative separation payouts and signed non-disclosure agreements.

Off with their heads

It was no. 7, that precipitated the abrupt departure (constructive dismissal?) of VC Phakeng and Babalwa Ngonyama, Chair of Council – hereafter CoC. Most specifically, there were allegations focusing on their roles in the abrupt stepping down of DVC Lis Lange that was announced by Phakeng on 2 May 2022.

“It has been agreed that Associate Professor Lange will relinquish her DVC position with immediate effect and that, for the next two months, she will focus on preparing the University of Cape Town (UCT) for the Council on Higher Education’s Institutional Audit, which is scheduled for later this year. Following a period of sabbatical leave, Associate Professor Lange will join the Centre for Higher Education Development.”

However, all was not done and dusted.

Within days, it was queried/alleged that VC Phakeng and/or CoC misled the university’s Executive and Senate about the reasons for Lange’s stepping down. Phakeng and/or CoC claimed Lange had resigned “voluntarily” for “personal” reasons. Lange (like Makamandela-Mguqulwa – and perhaps Feris and Ally?) claimed she had been pushed out.

More specifically, in a letter (hereafter the Letter) dated 29 September 2022, Lange “clarified the reasons and sequences of events of [her] stepping down as DVC: Teaching and Learning”. The Letter was then discussed on the next day at a meeting of Senate, apparently violating a Senate policy that “any documentation brought before the council should be submitted seven days in advance” to allow members to acquaint themselves with its contents.

In the Letter – arguably violating her NDA – Lange stated that CoC initiated the ‘pushing-process’ at a meeting on 3 January 2022 and that Phakeng was only involved “at the very end” after Lange had signed – on 17 March – a confidential non-disclosure document (NDA) that reportedly involved a cash termination payout of R1.6 m.

CoC informed Lange that she had “no future” as DVC and needed to step down as soon as possible as DVC because her “relationship” with Phakeng “had broken down” and “no Council would appoint a DVC against the VC’s wishes”.

Lange replied that she wanted to continue in her post, intended to seek a second term and would communicate this wish in a letter to Phakeng. While she was preparing this letter to “force the conversation” with Phakeng, she was approached by the university [Human Resources Department] vis-à-vis a negotiated settlement, culminating in signing the confidential NDA and receiving a “golden handshake’.

In short, Lange ‘bowed out’, but claimed that she had “no personal reasons for stepping down from my position as DVC”.

Further support for Lange’s claim came on 17 May 2023 in an “Interim Report” from an Independent Panel of Investigation (hereafter Panel) duly appointed by Council to “adopt an inquisitional approach with the assistance of an evidence leader” to study the governance of UCT.

It alleged that:

  1. as far back as 20 May 2021, CoC indicated to Acting DVC Martin Hall that she wanted to terminate Lange’s position as DVC at the end of her first term in January 2023 and sought his advice on how to do this;
  2. on 3 January 2022, prior her meeting with Lange, CoC met with an unidentified representative from Human Resources (HR) and discussed how relationship problems between Phakeng and Lange necessitate the latter’s departure as DVC as soon as possible;
  3. at her meeting with Lange, CoC discussed Phakeng’s ongoing “relationship problems” with Lange and revealed that, although Phakeng was “in the loop” on the matter, CoC will be “dealing with the issue”;
  4. on 4 January 2022 CoC informed Hall that Lange had “hijacked the meeting”, “confirmed that she could no longer work under Phakeng” and “became abrasive, aggressive and abusive, making clear her own ambition to succeed Phakeng”; and
  5. that, from then on, CoC would step back and let HR manage the matter.

Thereafter, HR negotiated with Lange – keeping CoC informed – and, on 17 March 2022, Lange signed the confidential NDA.

On 15 March 2022 Hall discussed the proposed settlement with Phakeng who was “hesitant” about the $1.6m payout “given the poor performance issues”.

On 22 March 2022 82% of members of a meeting of Senate voted to support a second term for VC Phakeng.

However, all was still not done and dusted.

At a Commerce Faculty Board Meeting on 4 May 2022 (two days after Phakeng announced Lange’s departure as DVC), from an unnamed member, Phakeng replied to a question about Lange’s departure indicating that Lange’s departure was voluntary and for personal reasons and that she had no role in this decision.

At a Senate meeting on 10 June 2022, Tom Moultrie tabled a motion to discuss CoC and Phakeng’s awareness of and role in Lange’s decision to cease her role as DVC at the next meeting of Senate scheduled for 30 September.

On 23 September 2022, CoC stated that Lange had indicated that she did not want to be considered for a second term and that as of 22 March the matter was “still with DVC Lange and the Vice-Chancellor”.

Then came Lange’s 29 September Letter, sprung the day before a scheduled Senate meeting.

Why ‘bully’ Lange?

Why were CoC and Phakeng allegedly so bent on preventing Lange from continuing on as a DVC?

It could be because Lange’s vision for transforming UCT is antithetical to that embodied in Vision 2030 approved by both Senate and Council. Both Phakeng and CoC – who have long, outstanding and complementary professional track records in education, administration and business principles – spearheaded and nurtured the development of the widely accepted non-racial Vision 2030 for UCT’s academic project founded on excellence, transformation and sustainability. Indeed, the letters RACE appear only three times in the Vision’s summary document and all involve the word embRACE.

In sharp contrast, Lange’s personal vision maintains that, at the heart of the change needed in the university’s (pluriversity’s?) teaching and learning, is what philosopher, political theorist and public intellectual Achille Mbembe refers to as “pedagogies of presence”. To effect this alternate 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”.

This transformation is preferred for three reasons:

  1. academic success at UCT is uneven and reflects race and class
  2. the interface between students’ psychosocial and academic worlds is mediated by several services and infrastructures that are not in sync, some operating as if the others did not exist”; and
  3. 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 African Fallist movements to initiate, at departmental level, curricular reviews that challenge the institutional curriculum. Her personal preferred 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.”

In short, Lange’s personal, race-focused vision for transforming UCT irretrievably clashed with that of her line-manager – VC Phakeng – and the Senate/Council approved Vision 2030. This resulted in an irreversible adversarial breakdown in their personal, professional and institutional working relationship. In a university dedicated to open, unfettered, curiosity-logic-driven, evidence-based pursuit of objective Truth, Phakeng, Lange and indeed all interested and affected parties – especially students, fee-paying family and friends, and staff committed to positive institutional transformation – should have discussed, debated and resolved this dispute transparently.

However, there was no resolution, and all was still not done and dusted.

On 21 February 2023, before the Panel could release findings and make substantive recommendations, Council adopted a resolution emanating from a Memorandum of Agreement between “UCT” and Phakeng that removed the need for the Panel to investigate Phakeng’s conduct as VC. Apparently after being threatened by a Council resolution to suspend her, Phakeng agreed to take early retirement, apparently with a massive ‘golden handshake’ – reported to be R12.6 m).

Was Phakeng guilty?

In the absence of evidence from the Panel, what evidence substantiates ‘Red Queen’ Phakeng’s narcissism, self-promotion, black-book-carrying, bullying, etc?

Indeed, while she was DVC for Research, some questioned the utility of her Ph.D. in Mathematics Education and her perceived support for race-focused, radical Fallism.

However, when appointed to UCT in 2017, it was at the level of Full professor of Mathematics Education. This ranking is justified because she is a highly regarded, B2 NRF-rated scientist with over 80 research papers and five edited volumes published. Moreover, she had been invited to deliver over 30 keynote/plenary talks at international conferences, and as a visiting professor in universities around the world.

Furthermore, since Phakeng was appointed VC, UCT’s international ranking improved. UCT climbed 23 places globally, from 183rd last year to 160th, according to the World University Rankings published by Times Higher Education magazine last month. UCT graduates also remain among the world’s most employable, according to the Quacquarelli Symonds Graduate Employability Rankings.

With regard to Phakeng’s pro-Fallist racial bias, Tiri Chinyoka, a mathematics lecturer and member of the UCT Black Academic Caucus (BAC) referred to one of her anti-black comments: “She told us don’t come here to be bogged down by minutiae blackness.” He went further: “The problem is that complaints from white staff are taken seriously and black people are left to fend for themselves”. Other black academics and activists besides Chinyoka complained that she had effectively “killed the BAC”. This complaint is sharply contrasted by Phakeng’s success in attracting and promoting blacks, especially women, to senior executive academic and managerial posts.

WRT to her bullying style of management Phakeng comments: “I demand everyone put in their best. What I expect from others I expect from myself first. I say people should exert their best because I exert even more myself. What’s wrong with that?”

WRT her personal bullying relationship with Lange, According to Phakeng, it soured quickly. “[Lange] had this tendency of swearing. She would spit ‘f***s’ and ‘s***s’, and I was like, not on my watch. I told her she could not swear in my meetings. She would swear in my meetings and they would all laugh … I told her if she was black she would have been fired. I feel that was the beginning of the end.”

Chinyoka seems to agree: “People might have a problem with the VC’s personal style, her approach to leadership. But she doesn’t beat about the bush. She is a straight shooter. Some of us here are saying: ‘With all her faults, we stand by her on this one.’”

The Inqusition

What the Panel and its unidentified Evidence Leader (inquisitor?) did do was to investigate “implicated persons”. They “received [confidential] extensive written and oral evidence from [anonymous] members of the University community, including members of Council and almost all members of the present executive committee.” One wonders why witnesses insisted on anonymity and Council and the Panel refused to be transparent with the truth underpinning allegations against Phakeng.

So far, two persons have been implicated, the CoC and her Deputy, Pheladi Gwangwa, and have been removed from their positions. Both are currently challenging poorly substantiated accusations by anonymous accusers.

But, a key unimplicated ‘implicator’ – Ex-VC Phakeng – has yet to state her position and intentions, let alone tell her ‘Truth’. Did she and CoC (and/or Gwangwa?) collude in constructively dismissing Lange and, before that, perhaps Ombud Makamandela-Mguqulwa, Transformation DVC Prof. Loretta Feris and Executive Director Dr Russell Ally? Was she working hand-in-glove with Fallists, pro-Fallist SRC members and the BAC to destructively decolonize UCT? If so, why did she make the following introductory comments to the 2021 UCT Transformation Report?

“The work of transformation goes far beyond employment equity. While employment equity can be legislated by government policy and put into practice by management, true transformation must happen in people’s hearts and minds to have a lasting effect through our actions. Transformation calls us to commit to building community.”

Did she – as the scathing letter from UCT Law Faculty Dean Danwood Chirwa alleges – knowingly collude with violent student protesters, exposing staff and students to danger? Did she undermine campus protection services so that they were either “absent or looked on or showed no interest” in preventing these acts. Or, was Phakeng bending over backwards to negotiate with the SRC who steadfastly remained at loggerheads with her executive? SRC vice-president Swazi Hlophe said: “The executive used engagements with us as rubber stamps to say they have negotiated with us. However, we don’t find solutions. They don’t meet our demands and we come with viable solutions but they won’t hear our solutions.”

Or, did anti-Phakeng members of Council, the Executive, faculty and students hijack university apparatuses to punish their ‘kick-ass’ boss, settling personal vendettas? One anti-Phakeng professor, Jeremy Seekings, is the husband of Professor Nicoli Nattrass. Her controversial article in the South African Journal of Science in May 2020 was criticised by Phakeng for being offensive to black South Africans. Seekings asserted that Phakeng had “clearly lost the confidence of the vast majority of academics, of the governing council, and her colleagues in leadership, who are rumoured to have made it clear that they would all resign if she remained in office for a second term.” Seekings also alleged that there was “massive bungling of both salary negotiations and the beginning of the new academic year” and that she has lost support even among those students who have supported her hitherto.

Where’s the evidence?

Indeed, what is critical is fully transparent, evidence-based accounts from – and on the behaviour of – all key players involved in this apparent purge and from those who, dating back to the 1990s, set the stage for Fallists. Without this evidence, those who have suffered will still suffer from an academic nightmare at UCT and will never know the Truth.

But, do those currently in power at my beloved alma mater and employer for a half-century believe in Truth, let alone can they ‘handle’ it? Worse still, will UCT’s ‘silenced majority’ of students who want and need education and academics who want to impart it – all of whom strive to conduct internationally recognized and respected research producing and disseminating reliable empirical knowledge – continue to tolerate this Murder on the UCT Express?

More on this in my next piece.

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