UCT’s decline: Phakeng’s reign ends with R12M exit amid bullying and racism scandal – Andrew Kenny

The article by Andrew Kenny discusses the controversial tenure of Dr. Rosina Mamokgethi Phakeng as Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), which ended with her receiving a R12 million payout. Andrew Kenny portrays Phakeng as a divisive leader, accused of bullying, racism, and misuse of race as a weapon within the university. Kenny criticizes her leadership style and highlights the damage done to UCT’s academic freedom, referencing a recent independent investigation into UCT governance. Kenny also reflects on the broader challenges faced by UCT, including previous leadership issues and a perceived decline in academic standards, suggesting potential consequences for the reputation of black graduates and the university as a whole.

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A R12 million victim with kinky hair

By Andrew Kenny

The latest chapter in the decline and fall of UCT is called Dr Rosina Mamokgethi Phakeng.

This strange and unpleasant woman is a psychological phenomenon. Her disastrous five-year reign as Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town ended in March this year on a note of financial triumph for her. She will be paid R12 million to go away.

This is a bargain for UCT, since the damage she has done to UCT is incomparably greater, and one shudders to think of the further damage she would have caused had she remained. This month, a panel led by Judge Lex Mpati, conducting an ‘Independent Investigation into UCT Governance’, handed in its report. It is now public. One of its aims was to investigate why nine higher officers of UCT, deputy vice-chancellors, executive directors and top administrators, left because of her. I have only read the executive summary, but it makes grim reading – bizarre reading.

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Phakeng is described in some detail as a bully and a racist, who seemed to get pleasure in humiliating colleagues in front of others. She was arrogant to the degree of someone demented yet, like most bullies, she saw herself as a victim of plots against her. She is obviously a narcissist.

The panel recommends that UCT apologise to at least 46 people for their suffering at her hands. Her racism borders on madness. ‘The most troubling aspect of her leadership was the divisive way she used race and racial difference as a weapon in her interaction with almost everyone in UCT, regardless of their position,’ says Sipho Pityana, the former UCT council chairman, who was responsible for her appointment as VC. The report gives examples of her peculiar racial obsessions.

She denied that coloured people were black. She said there were too many coloured and Indian people in executive positions at UCT. She said she was ‘the only real black person in the executive because she had kinky hair’. Once in a meeting, when a coloured person began with ‘As a black person …’, Phakeng shouted, ‘You’re not black … you don’t have hair like me, you don’t smell like me, you don’t look like me and you don’t taste like me.’ Not even the apartheid government had thought of this method of race classification.

Never used smell

The apartheid regime tied itself into knots with race classification. It made itself a laughing-stock at the same time it was inflicting humiliation and suffering on millions of people. Apartheid did indeed use hair as a means of distinguishing between the races. But it never used smell. Had Phakeng been born into that earlier age, perhaps she could have advised the race classification board. She could have helped them train sniffer dogs for this purpose. In the race courtroom, the candidate for race reclassification would appear before the dog. Perhaps if the person had the right smell, the dog would wag its tail. If not, it would bark angrily.

Naturally, there was immediate disparagement of the panel’s report, claiming it was false – and racist, of course. You’re only saying that because she is black and female. The EFF said, ‘She was a stain on the white-supremacist record of UCT and had to be removed to restore the status quo.’

But if you doubt that the report gives an accurate account of Phakeng’s bullying, arrogance and paranoia, I suggest you watch and listen to the lady herself. On 3 March 2023, Phakeng was interviewed on eNCA by J J Tabane. Please google it if you haven’t seen it already. Tabane seems a fair and sympathetic person, but she attacked him and mocked him as a ‘journalistic buffoon’. She persisted with the attack even as he tried to move on. She said he was ‘a joke’. She said, ‘I don’t want you using your voice telling the world I am intellectually arrogant. I need my reputation intact. You cannot be part of the cabal that’s here to destroy me after building my career for so long.’ I found this most revealing.

Phakeng obviously has no guile at all. If she had, she would have used the interview as an occasion to demonstrate that she was not an arrogant bully. Instead, she demonstrated that she was. She proved her critics right. She seems incapable of deceit. She seems mentally unbalanced, and unable to distinguish between right and wrong. Most of us fool ourselves about ourselves; she seems unable to see herself at all.

Every thug and bigot

Phakeng’s predecessor as vice chancellor, Dr Max Price, was also a disaster, and also caused great damage to UCT, but otherwise they couldn’t have been more dissimilar. They wrecked in different ways. Price was not a bully at all. Quite the opposite, he seemed to enjoy being bullied, and surrendered to every thug and bigot who confronted him. Under him, academic freedom was seriously wounded – perhaps mortally wounded. It might never recover.

The book, The Fall of the University of Cape Town, by David Benatar, describes in painful detail how Price contributed to the ruin of UCT. The book is over-long and greatly in need of editing, but it is essential reading for an understanding of the UCT tragedy. Interestingly enough, though, Price was opposed to Phakeng’s appointment as vice chancellor.

Phakeng had been a deputy vice chancellor at UCT, and her awful behaviour and temperament had been obvious to all she had dealings with. When she was considered as vice chancellor, there were no doubts about her qualifications. This is important to note because I see headlines now trying to shock us by saying it can now be revealed Phakeng had good qualifications for the job. Nobody doubted that. What bothered people were ‘serious concerns about her behaviour and leadership ability’.

The main person responsible for her appointment was Sipho Pityana, then Chairperson of the UCT Council. Price recommended she should not be appointed but Pityana persuaded the selection board that she should.

I regret to say I have spent 14 years at UCT: 1967-1970 studying physics, 1984-1986 studying engineering, and 1997-2005 doing energy research. I saw the beginnings of UCT’s decline and its loss of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

‘The academic boycott’

In 1986 I saw Vice Chancellor Saunders surrender to a bunch of thugs who invaded the lecture of a visiting academic of high renown, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and demanded he be expelled from the university. O’Brien was a liberal, fiercely anti-apartheid and a champion of academic freedom. The thugs claimed he was defying ‘the academic boycott’ of South Africa, which nobody I knew had ever heard of. Anyway, Saunders bent the knee to them, and O’Brien was kicked out. This began a long series of surrenders of freedom at UCT and the ending of debate, to be replaced by strict conformity with only one point of view allowed.

Benatar’s book chronicles UCT’s shameful retreat from critical thought and academic freedom, indeed any freedom at all. In my first stint at UCT, while I was studying maths and physics, I had some dealings with a Brian Hahn. He was extremely clever, a deep Christian I think, a committed liberal, and a gentle and kind person. In 2005, when he was an associate professor in the maths department, he was murdered in the maths building by a Dr Stephen Tladi, who had a contract post in the department. Tladi, by his own testimony, knocked Hahn down with an umbrella and then kicked him in the head many times, as hard as he could. Hahn died in hospital. Apparently Tladi did this because Hahn could not recommend him for a permanent post. The reaction of UCT was muted sympathy for Hahn but a much stronger sympathy for Tladi as a victim of – the usual things.

In 2015, UCT invited Flemming Rose to deliver the 2016 T B Memorial Lecture. Rose, a Danish editor, was a brave and outstanding champion of free speech. With great courage, he tried to expose the massive hypocrisy in the West of those who feel free to mock and jeer at all things Christian and Jewish but dare not whisper a word of criticism against anything Islamic. Max Price cancelled the invitation. Max Price would not allow Rose to speak. He gave all the usual repulsive, cringing reasons why. ‘The right to academic freedom is not unlimited’. Actually, at UCT it hardly exists at all. But I am proud to say that the Institute of Race Relations did then invite Flemming Rose to speak in Joburg and Cape Town. I attended the latter talk, which went entirely peacefully. I was most impressed with Rose, with his dignity, honesty and clarity.

‘Appeasing the UCT Taliban’

I am friendly with Dr Kenneth Hughes, the cleverest man I know, perhaps the best mathematician in South Africa. He is a famous liberal and defender of free speech. Horrified by the closing down of freedom and argument at UCT, he published a letter entitled, ‘Appeasing the UCT Taliban’.

In 2016 he was asked to give a course of postgraduate lectures on the history of academic thought. He did one on Karl Marx, and quoted Marx, quoted Marx, mind you, on his theory of economic advance – first hunter-gathering, then feudalism, then capitalism, and finally socialism. Marx praised colonialism for pushing backward parts of the world, such as Africa, into capitalism.

Hughes quoted some passage of Marx praising some colonialist reform. At this stage Hughes was shouted down by screaming students, who demanded that UCT end his lectures and recognise him as a dangerous racist. Naturally Max Price immediately surrendered to the student Taliban.

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Price also gave way time and time again, to the ‘Fees Must Fall’ hooligans, to those who smeared faeces on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes and demanded its removal, and to those who interrupted lectures and exams, and vandalised UCT property, including artwork. As Benatar says, Price would draw a line in the sand behind which he would not retreat. Then, when that line was crossed, he would retreat and draw another line in the sand further back.

Dr Nicoli Nattrass is a professor in the economics department. She is known for her brave work in exposing the economic damage, as well as human suffering, caused by the ANC’s mad denial under President Thabo Mbeki that HIV causes AIDS.

In 2020 she had published in the South African Journal of Science an investigation into the attitudes of black people towards animals and the environment. This was prompted by a concern from UCT’s Institute for Communities and Wildlife that it had difficulty attracting black students. I cannot emphasise how important this matter is. Terrible harm has been done to people and animals in Africa by failing to address it. UCT’s Black Academic Caucus complained that her article was racist and ‘would be used by white supremacists’. Muhammad Asmal, a PhD student at UCT, wrote on Facebook that ‘Nicoli Nattrass is dumb ass white bitch who is uglier than her dog’. Dr Phakeng asked Nattrass to withdraw her article but could not explain why.

Quiet, decent, committed

Professor Bongani Mayosi was head of the Department of Medicine for nearly ten years. He was a quiet, decent, committed man, who hated conflict and retreated from it. In September 2016, he took up a new post as Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences. At the time, student protests were erupting in the faculty.

Perhaps sensing his gentle nature, a group of undergraduates forced their way into the Dean’s suite and occupied it. He was called a ‘coconut’ and a ‘sellout’. They demanded that he should gave them a DP concession (a concession that they had ‘Duly Performed’ their student duties to be accepted for examination). He gave in to them. He felt so ashamed that he tendered his resignation the next day, but it was not accepted. On 28 September, students invaded a medical faculty meeting, seized the microphone from him and said they were taking over the meeting. They shouted abuse into his face. Some members of staff, including white members, supported the student bullies against him. His persecution continued. At last, he could bear it no more. On 27 July 2018, he committed suicide.

Mayosi’s case shows that being black is not enough to put you on the side of anti-colonial, revolutionary good, and being white is not enough to put you on the side of the evil white, racist, colonial bad. You have to be a real black, which means having the correct skin colour and appearance, and having the right attitudes, which means conforming slavishly to whatever is the prevailing propaganda of the mob.

A white who takes the knee, grovels before the mob, and continually denounces all other whites as primitive racists opposed to transformation, is left alone – despised, of course, but left alone – and may be promoted to quite high office. Both the real black and the acceptable white must obey and conform. Critical thought must be banned. Free speech is right-wing. Academic freedom is a colonial trick. And so academic freedom is dying at UCT – perhaps already has died.

The next thing will be that outsiders, including employers and people seeking professional services, will begin to wonder about academic standards at UCT, particularly for black graduates. Everyone knows that black students need lower matric marks to get into the UCT medical school, regardless of how rich their parents were or whether they went to Bishops or not. We are told that UCT demands the same standards of them as it does of white students; so we look at the goings on at UCT and the continual surrender to militant students on every issue, and we think, ‘Oh really. You mean angry black students are not pushed through by cringing lecturers?’

For their children

If we are choosing between two young doctors, and we know nothing about either except that one is a black graduate from UCT and the other is a white graduate from Stellenbosch, which one would we choose? We know exactly what teachers the ANC ministers choose for their children: they choose white ones. They know all about black affirmative action teachers and want nothing to do with them for their own children. Maybe people will begin to think the same of black graduates with ‘transformation’ degrees.

Dr Phakeng is certainly not solely to blame for the ruin of UCT. It has been a long time coming and most of it was caused by white men whose cowardice was as damaging as her arrogance. All she has done has been to conduct a unique style of wrecking. She also showed us that there is strong competition for black victimhood at the top of the anti-colonial ladder, and it can be very lucrative.

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This article was first published by Daily Friend and was republished with permission

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