Outgoing UCT ombud tells of threats, suspension and censorship in parting letter

UCT ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, left, with public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane after they formalised the relationship between their offices in 2019. File photo.
UCT ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, left, with public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane after they formalised the relationship between their offices in 2019. File photo.
Image: Twitter/UCT

The outgoing University of Cape Town (UCT) ombud's parting letter to the institution reveals a tense relationship with management.

In a three-page letter on Wednesday, Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa said the institution sued her over her findings instead of engaging her towards the end of her tenure.

Makamandela-Mguqulwa’s office hogged headlines after her 2019 report painted an unflattering picture of UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

The report said 37 academics had accused Phakeng of bullying.

Makamandela-Mguqulwa was served with a notice of suspension after she refused to withdraw the report. Phakeng challenged the report in court before withdrawing the lawsuit.

“There is no doubt that the 2019 report shifted the place ombudsing holds at UCT and its relevance as the conscience of the institution against its own values,” read Makamandela-Mguqulwa’s letter, which was addressed to “UCT members”.

She added: “For the first time in nine years, the opportunity to talk to the ombud about the contents of the report was not taken. Instead, courts were approached.

Council looked the other way to save the face of the institution over truth and accountability.
Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa

“Council, to whom I am administratively accountable, looked the other way when the office was disparaged by its members to save the face of the institution over truth and accountability.”

Makamandela-Mguqulwa said she was threatened and accused of misconduct. She said she was happy that she did not accept permanent employment at UCT.

“Due conversations were replaced by court papers, threats to suspend, allegations of misconduct, momentary changes of the ombud’s status, and everything possible to ensure that by the time the contract ended I would be viewed as already having been external and irrelevant to the university,” the letter said.

“As you can imagine, especially given the current circumstances, I am pleased and relieved to close my second term from my office as per my contract. I am happy to have had the foresight not to accept a permanent appointment at UCT.”

Makamandela-Mguqulwa said she hoped UCT would retain the key tenets of the ombudsman’s office.

UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng sued outgoing UCT ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa over a report that labelled her a bully.
UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng sued outgoing UCT ombud Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa over a report that labelled her a bully.
Image: Esa Alexander

“While I have not been informed or consulted about any plans for contingency or the future of the office, including any efforts to promote and sustain the ombudsing legacy and investment of many years, I do hope that the university continues with the ombudsman’s office,” she wrote.

“It is specially my hope that the university retains the key characteristics of confidentiality and independence, since it is these that made people trust my office with information that would otherwise not surface. It would be impossible for my successor to contribute as ombudsman if these were to be taken away.”

Makamandela-Mguqulwa, UCT’s first ombud, sang the praises of Max Price, Phakeng’s predecessor.

“I also remember Dr Max Price as the VC who chose communication over litigation, and during Dr Price’s time deans and the members of the executive were supportive of my work and always ready to discuss issues,” she said. “I will always be grateful for this vulnerability from the university.”

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