July 14, 2020

Report by Ombuds at University of Cape Town Ignites Debate

In her latest annual report, UCT's Ombud, Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa said that she had heard many complaints of bullying by the University's Vice Chancellor. The Ombuds wrote, "A number of work-related complaints came to me during this reporting period about professional interactions with the VC where people felt bullied, silenced, undermined, rebuked and/or treated unfairly." The matter quickly escalated and drew significant press coverage in the legislative capital of South Africa.

On July 9, News24 offered this recap:

  • A report by UCT's Ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa claims the vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, is a bully who rules by fear - and lists her enemies in "a black book".
  • In response, Phakeng vigorously defends her reputation - accusing the Ombud of acting in bad faith, disregarding the law and violating her rights.
  • The actions by UCT's council has already led to the resignation of the council's deputy chairperson in protest.
On July 13, the Cape Times said the Ombud exceeded her mandate:

UCT’s council and Phakheng’s office sought a legal opinion on the report, both finding the ombudsman's report was neither impartial nor neutral.
“The Message from the Ombud is neither impartial nor neutral. In this respect, this aspect of the 2019 report differs materially from the 2012 to 2018 reports. 
"The previous reports address the ombud’s concerns relating to UCT at an institutional level, without ascribing fault to specific individuals the ‘Message from the Ombud’ exceeds the powers, authority and mandate and the reporting requirements of the job description, and breaches the foundational principles of the office of the ombud. 
"The ombud has no power to make such pronouncements,” a legal opinion sought by council read.
The Sunday World alleged that the Ombud had been co-opted by others seeking the ouster of the Vice Chancellor:

A source who works at UCT but is not allowed to talk to the media said the ombud’s office was being weaponised to get rid of Phakeng. “Knives have been out for Phakeng since her first day in office,” the source said.
UCT spokeperson Elijah Moholola said neither Phakeng nor the council would be commenting on the contents of the ombud’s report. “The matter is a confidential one and it is therefore not appropriate for confidential matters to be discussed outside the council process in the public space,” Moholola said.
The ombud did not answer questions sent to her and calls to her office went unanswered.
The Sunday Independent did obtain an interview with Makamandela-Mguqulwa:
“As ombud, I was appointed to highlight what was not working. The office is meant to unearth critical issues and I was led to understand that my work would involve scrutinising even the highest at university.”

She said her office operates according to the principles of the International Ombudsman Association, of which she is Africa chairperson.

“My role was to shine a light to what does not work, which is what I’m paid for. I find it ironic, going back and forth about the report, earlier this year I was invited to Mexico to talk about the senate and the need to report and what to report, yet the council did not act on the report,” she said.
On July 15 in the Daily Maverick, Makamandela-Mguqulwa defended her actions:
“I mean, why would I want to bring down the vice-chancellor? Why would I let myself be used by any race group? I cannot be manipulated, by any journalist, by any vice-chancellor, black or white, Phakeng or [former VC] Max Price. 
“I am clearly delivering on my mandate. When I assumed this position, I promised to challenge the highest powers, if need be. To hold a mirror to the institution: ‘This is what’s not quite working, please fix it.’ I cannot be forced to sweep the truth under a rug. How can I be party to knives being out? This narrative in itself, it is bullying. 
“I want everyone to stop and breathe, and to think about bullying. The very person who should be reflecting about her leadership style right now, is lashing out to discredit my report. I mean, my office is independent. If you have an issue with an ombud, you don’t go to lawyers. This is bullying.”

(UCT Ombud 2019 Report; News24; Cape Times; Sunday World; Sunday Independent; Daily Maverick.)

Makamandela-Mguqulwa founded the UCT Office of the Ombud in 2011 and will complete her current term in 2021. She has hosted many regional meetings, including a training offered by IOA, and has encouraged the creation of more Organizational Ombuds programs in a country where the Classical Ombuds model is predominant.

Related posts: University of Cape Town Opens Ombuds Office With IOA Standards; University of Cape Town Ombuds Hosts Regional Workshop; Second Newsletter from University of Cape Town Ombuds is Full of Updates; IOA to Offer Ombuds Training at University of Cape Town.

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