Despite the scrutiny and constant complaints about her, outgoing UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said she had a great time leading the institution.
In an interview with Weekend Argus, a tearful Phakeng said that since joining UCT she had been forced to deal with various health challenges she had not encountered before her tenure at the university.
“My mother would be devastated each time she read a newspaper that had bad things to say about me. It broke her. She would beg me to resign,” she said.
When she started at the institution in 2018, Phakeng was adamant about the need to transform the university while staying true to herself.
“Once they appointed me, I moved to Cape Town. I told myself that I would leave my hair natural. I wanted to make a statement that I am black, and I wanted the most uneducated woman in the rural areas to identify with me.
“I was told that my afro was too kinky and I should tone it down. I did, and began braiding my hair instead. Then in my 360 evaluations my dress code was scrutinised,” she said.
She said the scrutiny began early in her tenure.
“Just after my interview and presentation for the position of VC, the former council chairperson sent me a WhatsApp alerting me of concerns raised by the panel on an article alleging I was a narcissist. I told the former chairperson to not appoint me… I was even alerted of a group who was adamant to remove me from my position. Their plan was to get me out in six months.”
Phakeng said that, although there were naysayers she believed were out to deter her, she was adamant to continue her work with excellence.
Under her leadership, she was able to improve UCT’s world ranking. UCT is currently placed in the 176-200 band according to the latest Times Higher Education world rankings.
She said she found it odd that she was the cause of bad governance and intimidation at UCT when its council, “the heartbeat of the institution”, had the minutes of its meeting leaked to certain media houses before announcements were made.
“I did everything (I could) to do away with the fear and intimidation at the institution. I went from faculty to faculty dismantling this vicious cycle of fear at the institution,” she said.
Phakeng said she did not for a moment believe the media narrative about her being hated by both staff and students.
“Unions approved of my second term, the senate approved of my work, and a majority of the staff are so sad to see me go. Each time I walk on campus, the students come and embrace me and express pain at my departure,” she said.
“Usually those who love me don’t possess the power of controlling certain media houses or platforms of major influence,” she said.
Looking ahead, Phakeng said she saw a rainbow of hope before her and was excited to go back to things she had neglected.
“I’ll be returning to my writing of blogs. I’ll be buying a house and settling in Cape Town. I cannot wait to go shopping for the decor for my new home. I haven’t done it in such a long time. I am also preparing and exercising for my hike of Mount Kilimanjaro. I love hiking,” she said.
Phakeng has also said she wants the planned investigation into her time at UCT to continue.
This week UCT’s coalition of unions wrote to the minister of higher education expressing their lack of confidence in the UCT council. They unanimously expressed their support for Phakeng.
UCT’s council held a special meeting regarding the appointment of an interim vice-chancellor on Monday. They will reconvene to finalise the process today.
This article was first published by IOL.co.za
Ntsika Majiba is a writer for IOL.co.za