UCT vice-chancellor retracts ‘insensitive’ comment about student’s sexual assault complaint

25 May 2022 - 07:42
By TimesLIVE
UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-chancellor Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng has retracted a comment she tweeted in reaction to a student’s complaint that the institution had failed to suspend a lecturer she accused of sexual assault.

The alleged perpetrator is jointly employed by the university and government. An investigation was launched by the provincial health department in collaboration with UCT.

In a series of tweets last week the student lashed out at the university for not suspending him pending the outcome of the investigation. In reaction, the vice-chancellor said the student had declined offers of assistance from the university, and questioned her agenda.

“I have taken time to reflect. I fully understand the anger that followed my comment and I believe it was justified because our country continues to battle with the scourge of sexual and gender-based violence (GBV). Without context, my comment was insensitive, to say the least,” Phakeng said on Tuesday.

“I withdraw the tweet and offer my sincere apology. I will continue to do all I can to ensure our students are safe.”

Phakeng reiterated her stance against GBV.

“Our students should never allow anyone to subject them to any abuse. The main purpose of this apology and withdrawal of my tweet is to make sure our students have the courage to report such conduct with the confidence that we will act.

“We do not pay legal fees for any alleged perpetrator and we do not protect perpetrators at all. Instead we prosecute any UCT staff and/or student who engages in such conduct.

“Where our hands are tied is when the alleged perpetrator is a staff member not on our conditions of service or a student not registered at UCT. In such cases we can only support the survivor,” she said.

Babalwa Ngonyama, chair of the UCT Council, said she had engaged with Phakeng on reactions to her tweeted comments “to ensure we learn and grow from these challenges”.

Phakeng’s statement of apology, she said, “recognises the gravity of the situation and is an important step in the process of moving forward on this very important matter for the university and all concerned”.

“The university will not tolerate behaviour that is not in line with our stated values, and we intend to address breaches of those values internally and thoroughly.

“UCT is working with all parties to understand the full details of these matters, including working with the provincial department of health.”

In a separate incident last week, the UCT student representative council accused management of failing to protect students at an off-campus residence, where there have been protests against GBV. Eleven students there were accused of being sexual offenders and homophobes.

Ngonyama said the university was “mindful that we have an obligation to make every effort to address the concerns that have been raised”.

“While it would not be appropriate at this stage to comment on the details of the cases reported in the media, especially as these matters are receiving attention from the relevant parties involved, I wish to make this point: sexual violence and GBV are human rights violations which degrade the dignity and humanity of survivors and are a major barrier to achieving equality and social justice.

“Our policies require that all complaints about sexual offences and/or sexual harassment be taken seriously and treated with respect and in confidence, and that all parties involved will be afforded the benefits of due process and fairness.”


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