The Ombud Affair: A Poscript

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Part 3.1 – The Ombud Affair: A postscript – ‘Defending’ the “whistle-blower”

On 30 September, Jeremy Seekings (see here and here) – UCT Professor of Political Studies and Sociology and past member or the IRTC Steering Committee – came to the Ombud’s defence. In a media pieceDefend the whistle-blower: UCT shoots the messenger, ignores the message – he attributed the “unfolding battle” between “whistle-blower” Ombud Makamandela-Mguqulwa and ‘bully’ VC Phakeng to “creeping managerialism” that could slide into “executive authoritarianism”. Despite the fact that most of the key ‘players’ in this battle are ‘blacks’, he maintained that it is “fuelled by the current hyper-racialised climate and culminating in the persecution of whistle-blowers”.

Seekings also took issue with UCT’s new Council:

“Rather than addressing the message [the preamble to the unauthorized Report and subsequent claims published in the public domain], council is attacking the messenger”, leaving the ombud “with little choice but to blow the whistle to council – which bears ultimate responsibility for the governance of the university – and, when council procrastinated, in the press also”.

So, Seeking seems to assume that:

  1. the Ombud’s rendition of the Affair is accurate;
  2. it was appropriate for her to unilaterally bypass the VC and Council Chair – and the Council as a whole – to leak confidential [and hence irrefutable] and seriously damaging allegations into the public domain; and
  3. her revelations are just the “the tip of the iceberg”.

Seekings then criticized the previous and current Council’s investigations into UCT’s “dysfunctional executive”, characterizing it as a process conducted “in three phases”:

  1. delay;
  2. cover-up; and
  3. suppression

Based on my experiences with during the VC-Price-Era, I would add phase Zero – Ignore.

One might also argue that former Council Chair Pityana was entitled to ‘delay’ the tabling and ratification of the Report until he and key, ‘leak-secure’ council members were satisfied that the allegations had merit. Others [e.g. members of the current Executive Legotla and Council members who support the new VC’s more assertive ‘leadership style’ that demands civil engagement, service delivery and accountability from ALL staff and self-discipline from ALL students] could have preferred that incidents of alleged bullying be investigated fully and dealt with decisively and confidentially, and NOT subjected to ‘judgement’ by the Ombud, e-mail ‘voting’ and interpretation by ‘journalists’ and ill-informed readers of their articles. Finally, many others might agree that the new Council’s decision to temporarily suspend the Ombud on full pay is not “suppression”, given Makamandela-Mguqulwa’s self-proclaimed “vastly different” “priorities” and “real issues” and her view that it is not the “boss attitude” Council’s “role to dictate priorities for my office” because its members “do not even know or care about” it.

Furthermore, Seekings maintains that Pityana’s final report that retrospectively revealed reservations about VC Phakeng’s “leadership and personality shortcomings” “corroborated the ombud’s overall concern”. However, others, e.g. those [including Seekings?] also felt that VC Price had ‘leadership and personality shortcomings’ characterized by his appeasing and, ultimately capitulating to and colluding with radical Fallists and their supporters within the Black Academic Caucus.

For example, finger-flicking, faeces-flinging, female-assaulting founder Fallist Chumani Maxwele (see here and here) is no stranger to BOTH ‘bullying’ (verbal and physical – see here and here) and the Ombud.  Less than two months after defacing Rhodes’ Statue with human excrement on 9 March 2015 and only two weeks after VC Price stated at a meeting of the UCT Convocation that, should Maxwele re-offend, he would take “decisive action”, Maxwele re-offended. On 1 May he verbally assaulted (bullied?) a ‘white’ female lecturer. He barraged her (witnessed by two others) with hate speech.

Based on this “indisputable evidence of hate speech”, the “University considered Mr Maxwele’s alleged actions to be threatening and intimidating, and to have been unprovoked” and considered him to be a “potential risk to staff and students”. On 7 May, Maxwele was suspended and was to “face disciplinary charges”.

He faced no charges.

For more than two years, Maxwele repeatedly (at least eight times) evaded attending hearings vis-à-vis his bullying of the lecturer – until 4 December 2017. He walked out of this hearing in a rage when its proceedings did not go well for him.

Nevertheless, the Maxwele Affair remains unresolved despite the Ombud’s involvement – at least from the perspective of the lecturer. She, like the vast, un-consulted, “Silenced Majority” of the UCT Community has been ‘left behind’. The lecturer is still working for UCT but retires at the end of 2020. In her latest communication to me in early October 2020 she stated:

“In all, I had at least five meetings with the Ombud since starting work at UCT. She promised many things, but she did nothing. More specifically, I went to see her twice with a senior member of the Academics Association during my saga with Maxwele. Again, the result was zero. In my opinion she supported, defended, and tried to please Max Price and the executives of UCT all the time. She pretended that she is independent, but UCT paid for her salary and she depends on the people that we [abused academics] usually complain about. To me she was absolutely useless. I have no respect to her at all.”

This was not the end of Maxwele’s bullying.

He was yet again multi-amnestied by Price and the IRTC for new law-breaking acts and allowed – thanks to intervention from outgoing VC Price – to graduate in 2018. Despite this yet further concession, Maxwele disrupted proceedings and verbally bullied  Price and VC-designate Phakeng at his graduation ceremony.

Most recently (see here and here), Maxwele asserts that he was persecuted during the eight years he needed to complete his three-year undergraduate degree: “I was suspended and expelled for my political protest that led to Rhodes Must Fall and #FeesMustFall at UCT. I was suspended more than three times and expelled twice. All these times I took my cases to the Cape high court and won. One of my expulsion cases went as far as Constitutional Court.”

Was the Ombud also involved with any mediation between Maxwele and his corporate ‘bullies’ at UCT?

 Race-based ‘immunity’

Seekings mentions that the Ombud believes that black women should not be immune from being held accountable for statutory misbehaviour. To do so would be a “huge disservice to black people and to anyone else for that matter”. Yet, without a doubt, the Ombud – a black womxn – unilaterally and multiply violated her statutory mandate to defame another black womxn and the largely ‘black’ Council as a whole.

Is she immune from being held accountable by Council?

Still curiouser, Seekings asserts: “More than six months after the allegations first surfaced, there is little evidence that council has done anything to hold the “executive” to account or to redress the culture of intimidation.” But, in fact, the previous and current Councils have ACTED. The former Council requested more information from the Ombud and consulted with the VC and her Legotla about her “leadership style”. However, the Ombud refused to provide further information relevant to the Affair. Moreover, at least to some degree, there is evidence that, following both the outgoing and new Council’s advice, there has been significant effort by the VC and her Legotla to deal with any internal problems that prevented their synergetic collaboration to the benefit of ALL at UCT. Furthermore, the Chair and Deputy Chair of the new Council re-assessed the allegations against VC Phakeng and made several attempts to engage with Ombud. They were rebuffed.

It was this series of events that ‘compelled’ Council to suspend the Ombud temporarily, acting in the best interests of UCT.

Inaction

Despite all this, Seekings still complains that there has been no substantial report on the Ombud Affair to Senate or to the university as a whole. One might ask him to indicate how Council and the VC can report more ‘substantially’ – beyond what the university as a whole has seen in UCT NEWS – on the unauthorized Report’s six-page preamble, a ‘mess’ in the media and 37 [38 including one from the Ombud] confidential complaints about Phakeng’s “leadership style”.

Moreover, where is the rest of the bullying ‘iceberg’?

It is also difficult to see how the “ongoing internal process” of dealing with bullying sensu lato at UCT can be construed as “a cover-up” and how the new Council is complicit in the entrenchment of “corporate authoritarianism” within UCT. UCT was founded by a private act of Parliament in 1918. The Statute of the University of Cape Town (issued in 2002 in terms of the Higher Education Act) sets out its structure and roles. The Chancellor – currently, Dr Precious Moloi Motsepe, another black womxn – is the ceremonial figurehead. ‘Real’ leadership authority is invested in the Vice Chancellor – currently Prof. Phakeng – who is accountable to the University Council. Phakeng and other current members of Council were duly appointed following terms set out in the Act. So, by law, ‘authority’ IS ‘entrenched’ in the VC and 29 other members of Council.

In fact, it now seems that the dominant ‘isms’ at UCT seem to be ‘ME-ism’ and GROUP-ism, with any ‘outraged’ group or individual being entitled to violate rules, regulations and laws should they feel ‘compelled’ to do so. Bullying – even under the guise of ‘appropriate protest’ – was never discussed, let alone dealt with, by the Price Executive, Senate, the previous Council, the IRTC Steering Committee or its Commissioners, despite sterling efforts to do so by Seekings, his Senate colleague Prof. Nicola Illing and former VC Price. Indeed, bullying and law-breaking protest by Fallists during the last three years of the Price VC-ship is now widely portrayed formally as ‘racism-triggered’ and ‘socially justified’.

Now that Senate has more members sourced from the BAC and more professors seem to be attending and actively participating in meetings of Senate, it seems inconceivable that bullying behaviour can stay ‘anonymous’, ‘under the carpet’ or ‘slip through the cracks’. The ‘cat is out of the bag’ and at least some of the alleged ‘dirty laundry’ is out there for all to see.

Given that its mandate is “currently in the process of being updated”, let’s see if Senate can re-acquire its power to “control academic matters”. Sadly, during the Price VC-ship, there was relentless, cumulative ‘plucking parallelization’ of power at UCT. The eroded free speech, unfettered access [censorship?] to UCT media, academic freedom and artistic expression. It weakened [emasculated?] the statutory power of the SRC and Senate and any remaining trust by moderate Fallists and UCT’s “Silenced Majority” in the Executive, Management, Senate and Council. Price’s legacy to his successor was a UCT in chaos and in danger of becoming controlled by groups of “parallel” cabals (e.g. the BAC and Curriculum Change Working Group) bent on her radical “decolonization”.

The ‘Big Picture’

Seekings then goes internationally ‘ballistic’. He argues that “bureaucratisation and commercialisation of universities” is a global threat and has taken on a particularly sinister guise in post-apartheid South Africa given the “deepening imperatives of transformation, driven in part by the state and in part from within universities themselves”. Vice-chancellors have been “transformed from custodians of their universities” into “medium-term managing directors” or “apparatchiks with time-bound targets and performance indicators that determine their personal success or failure in the eyes of political masters on councils and in government”. “Their decisions are thus bound up with individual agendas, ambition, ego – and, above all, sheer survival. Directives are filtered down through a series of highly rewarded line managers, messengers with disciplinary power.”

Some of us who have been educated at and worked for UCT might add a third ‘zation’ to this list of threats – destructive decolonization.

How has this ‘zationism’ flourished at UCT? Seekings identifies “Recent changes to the composition of council [that] accentuate this trend”. He offers no clarification vis-à-vis Council’s alleged unwelcomed compositional changes.

He says little about VCs other than Phakeng.

Let me have ago. My time at UCT spans the VC-ships of six of UCT’s ten VCs: Luyt, Saunders, Ramphele, Ndebele, Price and Phakeng. I have interacted face-to-face with the last four. Only one of the six ‘fits’ Seekings’ criteria for a ‘Decolonized VC’: Dr Max Price. I outline my evidence for this conclusion in Vice Chancellors as Mirrors of the History of UCT: Max Price.

WRT bureaucratisation and commercialization”, Seekings and other interested and affected parties should read of the 72-page Moran Report commissioned by VC Ndebele near the end of his administration. It is authored by former Science Dean ‘Cliff’ Moran, DVC Cheryl de la Rey and long-serving Prof. Andy Duncan, and presents incontrovertible evidence of inordinate power concentrated in the ‘managerializing’, ‘fiscally-focused’, ‘commodified’, centralized administration.

Black & White

Seekings refers to South Africa’s and UCT’s unhappy Manichean ideological and racial situation: ‘adaptive‘ transformation (good) vs radical destructive decolonization (bad), blacks vs whites with ‘goodness’ being assigned situationally and arbitrarily. In the meantime, civil debate is ‘ignored’, and even ‘suppressed’. Stuck and neglected in the ‘middle’ are students and academics who want to freely learn, debate and undertake world-class research. Seekings stresses that one way to expose alleged misconduct and complicity at the highest levels is to appoint a totally independent ombud with investigative and judicial responsibilities [and power?]. Sadly for Seekings and Ms Makamandela-Mguqulwa, UCT created its Ombud Office to report to Council and provide neutral and alternative dispute resolution that avoids ‘adversarialism’ and promotes amicable solutions. If they wish to ‘transform’ the Ombud Office to meet their concept, they and similarly thinking members of the UCT Community need to persuade Senate and Council to act accordingly.

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Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.