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UNIVERSITY CRISIS

UCT VC Phakeng denies sick-leave account, student assaults academic and Registrar resigns as campus instability continues

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From left: University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Esa Alexander) | Chair of Council, University of Cape Town, Babalwa Ngonyama. (Photo: UCT news) | Gallo Images

By Rebecca Davis 08 Dec 2022  0

The governance crisis at the University of Cape Town continues to spiral, with Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng and Council Chair Babalwa Ngonyama now at loggerheads over claims that Phakeng has been hospitalised due to stress. Separately, a senior UCT academic has reported being assaulted by a “I write to inform you that the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, was admitted to hospital on Monday, 5 December,” University of Cape Town (UCT) Council Chair Babalwa Ngonyama announced in a statement to the UCT campus on Wednesday.

“Professor Phakeng is receiving medical attention and will be out of office while recuperating. Given the stress the Vice-Chancellor has been under, this time away from office will also serve to give her a bit of rest.”

Ngonyama stated that the UCT Council had been informed of Phakeng’s medical condition in a special meeting held on Tuesday night, with deputy vice-chancellor Elelwani Ramugondo to step into the VC’s shoes in an acting capacity in the interim.

“The university Council is united in stabilising the situation, and is concerned for Professor Phakeng’s health,” Ngonyama wrote.

But in a sign that the relationship between the VC and Council Chair has severely deteriorated, amid UCT’s spiralling governance crisis, Phakeng has denied Ngonyama’s account.

Vice-Chancellor says health announcement ‘not so true’

In an email sent by Phakeng to Ngonyama and a number of other top executives, seen by Daily Maverick, Phakeng has expressed “great concern” over Ngonyama’s public statement.

Calling Ngonyama’s version of events “not so true”, Phakeng wrote: “I do not think my mere hospital admission for just a day was necessary to unleash the series of urgent special meetings (executive, Council and Leadership Lekgotla) flouting governance prescripts with a singular agenda item [of] ‘VC’s health risk’”.

Phakeng said that as a result of the “violation of [her] constitutional right to privacy”, she had been inundated by concerned messages.

“Let me repeat that I am here in hospital for a series of tests and that as a precaution, was admitted whilst awaiting results,” the VC wrote.

“This is indeed a disturbing phenomenon that my rights appear to be very easy to be violated at every opportunity.”

Phakeng has asked for Ngonyama’s announcement to be retracted.

Senior academic assaulted at UCT event

In a separate incident this week, a senior UCT academic has written to UCT authorities to report having been assaulted at a UCT seminar on Tuesday afternoon.

Politics and Sociology Professor Jeremy Seekings has claimed that student Chumani Maxwele twice “struck at [my] face”, knocking Seekings’ glasses to the floor, after accosting Seekings following a book launch at the Centre for Social Science Research.

In Seekings’ email, seen by Daily Maverick, he alleges that Maxwele originally used the discussion portion of the book event to launch an “aggressive tirade” focused on accusing Seekings and others of racism.

“I don’t know how we are supposed to respond when someone disrupts events in this way, launching into tirades that have little or no bearing on the subject of the academic event. Mr Maxwele intimidates most people into silence,” Seekings wrote.

Maxwele allegedly stayed at the event until most people had departed, following wine and snacks.

“When there were only four other people remaining, and I was beginning to tidy up, Mr Maxwele got into an altercation with me,” Seekings alleges.

“He struck at my face, forcefully knocking my glasses off my face onto the floor. After I retrieved my glasses, he again struck at me, again knocking my glasses off my face, damaging them. I did not retaliate. Fortunately, Prof [Lungisile] Ntsebeza — who was still there — persuaded Mr Maxwele to desist and to leave without further violence.”

Daily Maverick’s attempts to reach Maxwele on Thursday for comment were unsuccessful.

Maxwele famously threw faeces on the statute of Cecil John Rhodes on the UCT campus in 2015, birthing the Rhodes Must Fall movement. He has since been accused of assault on a number of different occasions.

Seekings concluded his email by posing a number of questions to UCT authorities, including: “What can or should the university do to protect its employees from this kind of aggressive disruption and/or violence, whilst at the same time allowing appropriate academic debate?”

UCT Registrar resigns

Among the executives to whom Seekings directed his email was UCT’s longstanding Registrar, Royston Pillay.

Daily Maverick understands, however, that Pillay has tendered his resignation after more than two decades at UCT. He will become the latest senior executive to leave UCT amid a stream of similar departures in recent years, as first reported by Daily Maverick in October.

The news of Pillay’s resignation shocked the UCT Council when members were informed last week.

The Council is still yet to resolve the details of an independent probe into potential misconduct on the part of Phakeng and Ngonyama.

Almost two months after the investigation was agreed on by a vote by the Council, the composition of the panel responsible for the probe has still yet to be announced. Although the panel was originally supposed to submit a detailed report to the Council by 31 December 2022, this deadline now looks to be extended well into 2023. DM  

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