Over the weekend, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, the social media savvy Deputy Vice Chancellor (DVC) for Research and Internationalisation at the University of Cape Town (UCT), posted on Facebook that there’s been a malicious smear campaign launched against her which started on Wednesday, 4 October.
Just nine months into her appointment, two UCT alumni sent a string of emails that cast doubt on her credibility as DVC and alleged that her qualifications are fake. The emails were sent to an extensive list of 40 people which included a former Vice Chancellor, members of the university’s council, senior professors, and alumni. Phakeng said the list featured mainly white people and about five or six black people.
People came out in full support of Phakeng. She said she has received messages of support from students, staff members, and academics. UCT’s Vice Chancellor Max Price also released a statement on Saturday backing Phakeng and disputing the two alumni’s claims. Price referred to the emails as mischievous and said he is offended and saddened by them. “As such it insults her integrity, her professionalism and her academic standing,” he said. Price also said the innuendo used against Phakeng “impugns the selection committee that appointed her”.
Social media also came out and even got #handsoffPhakeng trending on Twitter.
The Daily Vox spoke to Phakeng about her experience and to find out what would motivate someone to do this.
“Obviously I was angry. I put it on social media that there’s this thing going on. My view was that I want to get this out in my words.”
Phakeng said the distribution list looked well established and there were previous messages not related to her and her qualifications. Then one alumni wrote about a DVC that’s on Twitter. “Then, he says, there was a time when accession to academic or leadership positions in a first class university meant that someone has achieved intellectually and they are also honest, and they have gravitas, and this repeated twittering is actually a problem. This DVC is self-absorbed and narcissistic and can only be [compared to] Donald Trump,” said Phakeng of the first email in the chain. Phakeng said the second respondent replied saying that they don’t believe she is mathematically qualified at all. “She has a PhD in education of mathematics – it might justify investigating as she is such an embarrassment.”
The first person to respond to the vitriol was a very senior professor who Phakeng said is highly respected. He told them he doesn’t know what they’re referring to. “Please either explain or take me off the list,” Phakeng said of his response. She said that after the professor, four people had written in response asking to be removed from the list.
Phakeng is disappointed that out of 40 people, some of whom she works with, only one person wrote a response questioning what the two writers were doing. “[W]hen malicious information is being circulated, what do good people do? If good people keep quiet, then injustice perpetuates and thrives. This is what happened here. Only one person challenged these people to explain.” To Phakeng, asking to be removed isn’t enough. “If you say take me off, you’re saying I don’t want to be involved in the conversation but actually you can go on. I think that’s a problem.”
Phakeng believes those that remained silent means they are complicit.
Phakeng also went onto social media because that’s where the biggest network of people who know her is. She wanted the people who she went to school with, people that supervised her, and know her scholarship both nationally and internationally to see what was happening. “I wasn’t ready to wait and chair meetings with people who look at me in doubt whilst there’s a lot of people across this world who know my standing. People who respect me, people who have seen me sweat and hustle can tell them… who I am so that this thing can stop.”
She also chose to use social media because, Phakeng said, she isn’t the first person to experience this kind of attack in academia. “[T]his isn’t just my story. It’s the story of many black African academics.” She said she is using her stature, office, and power to draw attention to this type of bullying that has nothing to do with qualification. “For me that’s the most important part of this story. To say it can happen to anyone and we have to root it out. We have to call it what it is because it’s not about qualification. In my view it’s racism.”
Phakeng said we’ve seen this before with what happened to former Wits DVC Professor Malegapuru William Makgoba, between 1995 and 1996, and recently with Professor Chris Malikane, Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s economic adviser. She was only mentioning what is in the public domain.
Phakeng said they’re targeting her because she, as a black African woman in one of the highest offices at the university, represents something conservatives associated with the university don’t want. “I represent what conservatives are scared of. They think people like me are here to take over or destroy.”
The professor is calling what she and other qualified academics who come under credibility scrutiny racism because white professors aren’t analysed with such close probing. Phakeng said there are many white academics who are given professorship but don’t have any doctoral qualifications. She referred to her friend and former colleague Mary Metcalfe as an example. “Nobody questions their credentials or their academic track record and they don’t even have them. They can get away with it because they are white. Me, a black woman who doesn’t only have a PhD but [is] a rated scientist, and yet I have to explain myself.” Phakeng has asked them to speak up.
After she posted on social media, Phakeng received a lot of messages from young black academics thanking her for raising the issue and telling her about their experiences in their universities. “It’s not new [and] it’s not just me. What if I didn’t speak out? Who else would’ve believed them? I had to speak up so that this can be exposed.”
This experience has shown Phakeng that the state of transformation in South African universities is worse than she thought because racist behaviour in this country is not being called out. “The fact that these things continue, that highly educated people who are alumni and successful in business, just can do this and get away with it; that a group of people won’t even call them out on it.” She said these people did what they did because they know they can get away with it.
She said she reached out to the two alumni on Monday. One responded “with nothing” while the other is yet to respond. Phakeng and her husband are considering taking legal action against them.