UCT investigation into vice-chancellor and Council chair finally gets under way

Source: Daily Maverick

UCT investigation into vice-chancellor and Council chair finally gets under way

 University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Esa Alexander)

By Rebecca Davis


09 Feb 2023  2

Almost four months after the Council of the University of Cape Town resolved to investigate governance concerns at UCT, a probe has finally begun. The four-member panel is chaired by retired judge Lex Mpati.

An independent investigation into the governance crisis at UCT, exposed via Daily Maverick reporting in October 2022, is finally under way.

The investigation was initially envisaged as completing its report by 31 December 2022, but its work was delayed by a series of acrimonious Council meetings and the unavailability of one of the nominated panellists.

On Thursday, UCT announced that a special Council meeting of 31 January 2023 had decided on a panel chaired by retired judge Lex Mpati, featuring fellow retired judge Azhar Cachalia, public sector governance expert Trish Hanekom and Wits transformation head Bernadette Johnson.

UCT mpati
Justice Lex Mpati. (Photo: Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)

Panel will investigate vice-chancellor and Council chair

The panel is to investigate the conduct of UCT Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng and UCT Council Chair Babalwa Ngonyama, who are alleged to have misled the university Senate over the departure of former deputy vice-chancellor Lis Lange.

It is also seized with “all matters related to executive relationships, including the number of, and reasons for, resignations of staff within and outside the executive”, UCT stated on Thursday.

As originally reported by Daily Maverick last year, UCT has seen a sustained exodus of senior administrative staff under the leadership of Phakeng — a polarising figure whose social media activity has been a reliable source of consternation to many observers.

The panel “is authorised to interview current and former members of staff and also current and previous members of UCT’s Council,” the university stated.

“The panel will approach potential witnesses and encourage witnesses who are able to assist the panel to avail themselves for this purpose.”

Issue of NDAs remains critical

Thursday’s statement made no mention of the issue of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) — but Daily Maverick understands that during late 2022’s heated Council meetings over the terms of reference of the investigation, it was agreed that former UCT executives would be freed from NDAs when it came to speaking to the panel.

This is believed to be a critical aspect of assembling a full picture of events at the university over the past few years, as the increasing use of NDAs has meant enforced silence from the executives leaving UCT.

News24 previously reported that the panel would have access to all necessary university documents, including a list of departures of senior staff from 2018 onwards.

No explicit time frames given for the panel’s work

UCT’s Thursday statement did not contain any deadlines by which the investigative panel was expected to conclude its work, though it noted that the panel had formally begun its task.

“The panel will report to the UCT Council at the conclusion of its work. Updates relating to the work of the panel will be provided from time to time,” it stated.

Though the crux of the governance issues exposed in 2022 revolved around UCT’s administrative staff, 2023 has kicked off with the heat now emanating from the institution’s academics.

A late January strike by UCT’s teaching staff was narrowly averted by negotiations after the university’s Academics Union objected to a proposed 3% salary increase. It would have been the first academic strike in UCT’s history.