Former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town Mamokgethi Phakeng contemplated suicide barely into her five-year stint at the helm of the institution.
The leading professor of mathematics education also suffered several mini-strokes and has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and functional neurological disorder.
So tumultuous was her tenure as vice-chancellor (VC) at Africa’s No 1 university, she told Sunday World in an exclusive interview that when she was receiving awards, honours and accolades from around the world, some of the UCT’S council members were hell-bent on finding fault in her work.
“The awards and honorary degrees were making it very difficult for me at UCT,” she said,
Even her plea to the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande when he came to visit her in hospital last year, she said – amid the allegations of mismanagement and governance problems that are now part of a panel investigation at the university – fell on deaf ears.
“It was brutal to work under that council and that’s the mildest way I can put it. From the beginning, the job took its toll on my mental wellbeing,” she said.
So humiliating were the council meetings, said Phakeng, that if she was not being bombarded with questions while presenting her report, there would be complete silence and no questions or acknowledgement after she presented it.
“In my reports I would have a section on international engagements. A member of council would complain about me wasting a lot of the university’s money travelling. I would explain that the university didn’t pay anything; that those universities that I went to paid for everything.
“The questions wouldn’t be about the contents of the work. There was no interest in what the purposes of the trips were and how they would benefit the institution and students,” she said.
“In one meeting I was asked why I named the scholarship into which I contribute 10% of my salary the Mamokgethi Phakeng Scholarship.”
Bullying and intimidation
It was the report of then UCT ombuds Zetu Makamandela -Mguqulwa, said Phakeng, that was the turning point because unlike the other attacks and allegations, she was not notified of the allegations nor given an opportunity to respond.
Makamandela-mguqulwa’s report, which covered the period of July 1 2018 to June 30 2019 – exactly a year after Phakeng took office – accused her of bullying and intimidation, and undoing the good working relationship the ombuds office had cultivated with the university.
“The report accuses me of supporting transgressions and wrongdoing,” she said, “I was not given an opportunity to respond to the allegations. The ombuds was the complainant and judge in her own case.
“All these allegations were given credibility with her publishing them in her annual report to council. There was no way of redeeming myself.
“The shame I felt was indescribable. It was like being stripped off my clothes in public. I wanted to end my life. I felt there was nothing to live for.”
She said when the country went into hard lockdown in March 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it created an opportunity for her to research the best possible way she could end her life. “I was looking for a fast and neat way to do it,” she said, “I was staying with my two sons at the time and my husband had gone back to Joburg,” she said speaking of the toll the job had also taken on her marriage.
“Someone proposed that I see a therapist. I also went to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication for depression and anxiety,” she said.
She said she told her sons and niece about her mental struggles. “My sons also did a good job to remind me why it was worth living,” she said.
Fearing that she would do the unthinkable, Phakeng said her sons and niece had removed anything that they thought she would use to harm herself from her bedroom.
More health problems and her boss’s response
In mid-2020, Phakeng said she started having pain in her legs. A general practitioner referred her to a neurologist.
“The neurologist suggested we see a psychiatrist together. I was diagnosed with functional neurological disorder, which I learnt is the body’s way of protecting itself against trauma.”
In addition to medication for depression and anxiety, Phakeng said she also has to take medicine for the pain in her legs. “I still take this medicine till today,” she said.
“In February last year, I’m exhausted and my son has just been diagnosed with cancer, the chair of council says to me she wants to recommend me for a second term. She asks whether
I’m interested. ‘I say I am’.
“I was thinking about my children; finding out that my son has cancer; I was thinking I need some stability,” she said, “I did not pursue other job offers.
“There was an approach to be VC in New Zealand and there was an approach to be VC in the UK. There was a job at the World Bank that I was approached for.”
She said with her reappointment getting the nod of 78% of senate members, she thought the vote of confidence would translate into a more supportive council.
“I applied for sabbatical because I was tired, emotionally, physically and in every way. Only to find out that I had to come back in September because things were not going well on campus,” she said.
On her last month at UCT and future plans
“I’m not planning to take up any jobs until the end of the year. I have a visiting professorship at the University of Ottawa, Canada. I will go there before the end of the year.”
She said even when she is not VC she still gets messages that wish her ill.
After an interview with JJ Tabane on national TV, she said she received a message from the chair that said: “Hi Kgethi just to bring to your attention that council is considering cancelling its agreement with you because you breached the agreement by taking that interview and rubbishing the university …
“The university lawyers are exploring options for council to terminate and fire you.
“I suspect this will leave you in the streets.”
Phakeng said in her view she didn’t breach any agreement: “I didn’t talk about the amount.
“I was very clear when I signed the agreement that I don’t want to be gagged; I want to be able to talk.”
She said she believes her experience is not unique: “There are others who leave the university and don’t tell their story.
“The consequences of telling the story are huge,” Phakeng said.