UCT council sued in fierce fallout over Phakeng’s departure

Deputy chairperson at the University of Cape Town’s council Pheladi Gwangwa has taken the higher education institution to court over allegations that she was pushed from her position to punish her for taking decisions in favour of ousted Vice-Chancellor (VC) Mamokgethi Phakeng.

The case will sit in the Western Cape High Court today, where Gwangwa wants the decision of the university’s council to remove her as the council’s deputy chairperson to be declared unlawful, invalid and irrational.


At the centre of the legal dispute is Associate Professor Lis Lange, who was the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Teaching and Learning.

In a 187-page founding affidavit, Gwangwa explained that some members of the university senate believed she played a role in preventing Lange from succeeding Phakeng at the end of her contract as VC.

She said the storm started brewing when Lange learned that Phakeng would seek to have her contract renewed.

According to the court papers, in May 2022, Phakeng wrote to her colleagues and the university students, informing them that Lange would not seek to be reappointed when her contract ended in January 2023.

The Phakeng memo, which is included in the court documents, stated that there was an agreement that Lange would immediately relinquish her position as DVC for teaching and learning.

Instead, she would manage audit-related issues for a period of two months, after which she would go on sabbatical leave.

“In the lead-up to this statement, there had apparently been discussions between Associate Professor Lange and the UCT chair of council.

“I was not party to those discussions, however, in my capacity as a member of the UCT Remuneration Committee (Remco), and in the ordinary course of conducting the business assigned to that committee,” Gwangwa said in her founding affidavit.

Gwangwa, however, admitted that she knew of Lange’s impending departure on March 17, 2022, in an informal meeting.

Present at this meeting was council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama, Remco member Emeritus Professor Cyril O’Connor, UCT finance committee chair Zama Khanyile and herself.

“The chair’s brief was to the effect that Associate Professor Lange had tendered her resignation from the position of DVC [for teaching and learning], but that she would be retaining her position as an Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Faculty.

“She further informed us that Associate Professor Lange’s reasons for her resignation were personal and confidential… The UCT Human Resources Committee, which I chair, had no role in Associate Professor Lange’s departure,” she said.

Gwangwa said this resulted in Lange’s departure forming part of the agenda of UCT’s senate meeting held on September 30, 2022.

“The UCT senate deliberated on the circumstances surrounding Associate Professor Lange’s departure and subsequently resolved to establish a small group of 10 senate members to determine an agenda for a special meeting of the senate on this issue.

“Suffice to state for now that at this senate meeting, certain allegations were levelled against the chair of the council concerning the accuracy of the feedback she had provided to senate regarding Lange’s departure,” Gwangwa said.

Gwangwa explained that a special council meeting was held virtually on October 6, where Ngonyama recused herself from chairing the meeting but remained an ordinary participant.

“I therefore took over as meeting chairperson, without objection from the Registrar. After discussion, two motions were presented to council,” she said.

Gwangwa said voting on the two motions resulted in a tie, which meant she had to make the “deliberative” vote in line with UCT rules.

After the decision to support the second motion, disagreements arose about what transpired.

Gwangwa said the registrar raised issues about the voting process and the time involving one member, who later stated he had voted for the first motion but his vote was delayed due to bad internet connection.

She added that the dispute saw the involvement of the UCT Academics Union, which sought clarity and threatened to review the second motion in court.

She said the union accused Phakeng, Ngonyama and herself of conspiring to defeat the first motion.

“It was the first time that an allegation of bias against the deputy chairperson of council was being made. This was a new point being put forward for seeking to reverse the council decision of October 6 2022.

“By this time, these events taking place at the university were spreading into news and social media. I attach a letter from the minister of higher education, science and innovation. In that letter, the minister noted the news reports and encouraged the council to address the matters in the best interest of the university,” Gwangwa stated.

A number of meetings were held, where lawyers were involved, until a meeting on November 7, where Gwangwa, Ngonyama and Phakeng recused themselves due to the “toxicity” of the environment.

Council members attending the meeting also learned that two council members had decided to resign.

Following hours of tense deliberations, other members walked out of the meeting.

Phakeng eventually left the university after being forced out by the UCT council. She had been suspended in February this year on accusations of “mismanagement and abuse of power”.

On December 9 last year, the council decided to remove Gwangwa from her position as deputy chairperson.

In May this year, the UCT council further sought to remove her from the council entirely, but abandoned the process when she took the matter to court, according to the affidavit.

In her court application, Gwangwa argued that she was unfairly removed from her position as deputy chairperson as she was never given a chance to speak for herself when the decision was made.

She wants the court to set aside the decision and declare it invalid.

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said: “The University of Cape Town (UCT) has noted the court matter in question. UCT will respond accordingly through the relevant legal processes, and will reserve its rights. The university remains open to considering alternative mechanisms in an attempt to resolve the matter amicably.”

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