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Removal of Phakeng undermines tertiary sector transformation gains

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Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA) – UCT’s former vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. Is Phakeng the (Professor William Malegapuru) Makgoba of her time? Will she bounce back, like the man who brought transformation out into the open with such vigour? asks the writer.

By Edwin Naidu

The vilification of Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, until she was hounded out of office on 3 March, has pegged back the transformation gains witnessed by South Africa’s tertiary sector.

Phakeng was ousted in scenes reminiscent of the travails of Professor William Malegapuru Makgoba in his battle against the “gang of 13” academics who wanted him removed as deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand between 1995 and 1996.

They failed but not after bringing Wits to its knees with Makgoba telling the Times Higher Education Supplement that he wanted the “dominant eurocentrism” at Wits replaced, describing those in charge as a “small, inbred elite”.

That depiction may still hold weight at the University of Cape Town, where Phakeng received 78 percent of the vote for a contract renewal by the Senate in March 2022. However, she was out even before her new contract could kick in by July 2023.

While the jury on her tenure remains dependent mainly on the narrative peddled by the UCT council mole/s who squeaked to media 24 hours a day in the name of democracy when the university had not even caught its breath.

The same council supposedly committed to governance attempted to hush up its offer of millions to Phakeng and drop all claims against her if she agreed to go. Where is the governance they cried foul about? They should be hauled over the coals for dereliction of duty.

Acclaimed journalist Mark Gevisser referring to what became known as “The Makgoba Affair”, wrote that “there is no intellectual debate that defines our times more than that which racked the university in 1995”.

“Makogba was a victim of the ‘racialised power’ entrenched at Wits”, said Mahmood Mamdani, the respected Ugandan scholar and political commentator.

Far from being silenced as they seemingly sought to muzzle Phakeng at UCT, the former Wits DVC penned Mokoko – The Makgoba Affair in 1997, outlining his desire to transform the tertiary landscape.

However, his best work at transformation came during the merger of the former University of Natal and the University of Durban-Westville into the University of Kwazulu-Natal. Yet people are divided over his legacy. Makgoba has been labelled the architect of the unjust and unfair dismissal of several high-profile academics from UDW. He allegedly also faced accusations from staff members. But Makgoba survived UKZN as he did Wits, and is currently South Africa’s first health ombud, holding government hospitals to account.

Is Phakeng the Makgoba of her time? Will she bounce back, like the man who brought transformation out into the open with such vigour?

Given her bold outspokenness, there must be a book in Phakeng that exposes warts and all in her words – after all, some of the media that carried leaked stories on her never asked her for comment in most cases. Some individuals purport to be upholders of media freedom masquerading in journalism organisations that pick and choose their battles across colour lines.

Yet if UCT maintained its commitment towards governance instead of using the weak Council Chair, Babalwa Ngonyama, as a proxy to get rid of Phakeng, would they have seen the legal probe through and not agreed to pay off the outspoken professor? That would have put UCT on a better path.

Race is at the heart of all that is ugly in South Africa. If you believe the reports, black people don’t do right, especially at universities. Black people have been branded sell-outs for being hoodwinked by the Democratic Alliance liberal lackeys on the council.

At UCT, many would have you believe that racism was not the issue but governance, which Phakeng had allegedly breached. However, the swiftness with which the council agreed to drop the charges if Phakeng walked away suggests these disgraceful stewards of a national asset, as UCT paid lip service to governance.

Having got rid of Phakeng, would Ngonyama, whom it is alleged lied to Senate about the reasons for the non-contract renewal of Associate Professor Lis Lange, face the axe next? If not, why? Indeed, a council committed to governance would not turn a blind eye to this breach. Unless they deem the over-rated 61-year Argentine-born citizen as the next vice-chancellor in-waiting at UCT because the university it is proven in court papers has displayed crass racism in rejecting black people for positions because they were not a full professor. Yet Associate Professor Lange – who was described as a Professor – became a deputy vice-chancellor despite not being a full professor.

After three decades of democracy, only a fool would deny race as a reason for some of the country’s challenges facing tertiary institutions.

In 2014, revered and outspoken academic Professor Jonathan Jansen asked in a column, “Who killed Russel Botman?”

Professor Botman was the first black vice-chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch and died facing a revolt at the institution.

“It is a subject nobody wants to talk about – the high personal costs of transformation. Speak to any “transformation officer” at a former white university, or a private sector firm for that matter, and you will often find a battered and disillusioned spirit. It is an impossible task,” wrote Jansen.

As seen with the Phakeng debacle, Botman’s experience led Jansen to conclude that this must be one of the few universities where agenda items of a council meeting are debated in the local Afrikaans newspaper before the meeting even begins. Déjà vu!

Jansen said Botman’s death should let the Stellenbosch community reflect on the circumstances leading to the death of its first black vice-chancellor. Did anybody listen? Or care!

Speaking at the Free State Centre for Human Rights launch on the matters of Transformation in Higher Education, South African Human Rights Commission Chairperson Bongani Majola said that after the 1994 elections, despite the efforts taken by the government and its laudable achievement, the transformation had yet to be achieved.

These have been made clear by the racial tensions that manifested in universities, such as the ‘Reitz incident’, which involved the abuse of four black African staff members at the University of Free State, and the student-led national movement for access to decolonised education colloquially termed the ‘RhodesMustFall’ and FeesMustFall protests.

When news of the end of Phakeng’s reign emerged, her public accusers seemed to be white men: the former Stellenbosch University vice-chancellor Professor Chris Brink, a member of UCT’s remuneration subcommittee, who initially made an offer on February 9 to drop the governance charges and disband the panel led by retired Supreme Court of Appeal president, Judge Lex Mpati, in return for her going. This was stated in a letter by attorney Halton Cheadle. Retired judge Dennis Davis also expressed a supposedly damning view on the alleged evidence against Phakeng. One is, however, yet to see what the esteemed judge said. But it is clear, at UCT men (usually pale males), still call the shots.

Brightness Mangolothi, a Director at HERS-SA, an NGO working in women’s leadership development in higher education, said Phakeng’s departure signals a step backwards in the representation of women vice-chancellors in higher education.

With interim vice-chancellor Prof Daya Reddy, the university is in the hands of a man. It beggars belief, however, that a retiree, a respected and stellar academic, no doubt, got the nod while UCT is awash with talent.

It shows a council out of touch with its people when Africa’s best university, according to five international ranking systems, cannot find someone from within to take charge of the university.

Unless they’re looking for a stooge which they mistakenly assumed they had – but were later disappointed when Phakeng began getting rid of the racist, “small, inbred elite” still haunting UCT.

Edwin Naidu edits Inside Education and heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up involved in education in South Africa and the African continent.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.