In a recent upheaval at the University of Cape Town (UCT), an independent panel led by Judge Lex Mpati has unearthed a series of serious governance failures and racial misconduct. The panel’s findings have sent shockwaves through South Africa’s academic circles, highlighting a crisis of leadership and racial tensions within one of the continent’s most prestigious institutions.
The Mpati Report, spanning 179 pages, documents the conduct of UCT’s former Vice-Chancellor (VC), Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, who is accused of viewing and treating her colleagues through a racial lens, reminiscent of apartheid-era classifications. Phakeng’s tenure, from 2018 to early 2023, was marked by what the Chair of Council until mid-2020, Sipho Pityana, described as a “crass” obsession with race. The report details instances where Phakeng allegedly engaged in racial stereotyping, actively discriminated against individuals she did not consider “black enough,” and even humiliated colleagues, leading to a culture of silence and a lack of accountability.
The panel’s investigation also found that Phakeng and the then council chair, Babalwa Ngonyama, misled the university regarding the resignation of a colleague, Professor Lis Lange, which was deemed a constructive dismissal. The report has prompted the new council chair, advocate Norman Arendse, to issue a public apology for the previous council’s failure to act appropriately, acknowledging the emotional trauma inflicted on staff members.
The Mpati Report has made several recommendations, including public apologies to affected staff and disciplinary proceedings against specific individuals for breaching the university’s code of conduct. The report also calls for the university to offer counseling services to those who experienced bullying during Phakeng’s tenure.
This controversy has reignited discussions about the racialisation of academic spaces in South Africa and the impact of such practices on governance and institutional culture. The UCT saga serves as a stark reminder of the complexities of leadership in a society still grappling with the legacies of its past.
As the university community and the public at large process these revelations, the focus turns to how UCT will navigate the fallout and what steps will be taken to ensure such failures do not recur. The full implications of the Mpati Report for UCT’s future governance and commitment to non-racialism remain to be seen.