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Up in flames: Students watch as a building at UCT burns on April 18 2021. Picture: Gallo Images/Shelly Christians
Up in flames: Students watch as a building at UCT burns on April 18 2021. Picture: Gallo Images/Shelly Christians

If one needed a metaphor for the governance crisis at the University of Cape Town (UCT), look no further than the burned Jagger Reading Room and charred stumps of once great trees on the slopes above the campus.

The wildfire that swept down from Devil’s Peak on April 18 2021 also razed the restaurant at the Rhodes memorial, the university’s plant conservation unit and the 225-year-old Mostert’s Mill. (That the restaurant and the mill went up in flames when memories of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign were still fresh is an irony that did not pass unnoticed.)

The destruction wrought by that fire may yet be eclipsed by the current blaze on campus, ignited by the release of a 179-page report into governance failings at UCT.

No bets, though, on how long it will take the university’s reputation and morale to rise from the ashes

Covering the tumultuous years from 2018 to 2022, the report — compiled by a panel led by retired judge Lex Mpati — accuses erstwhile vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng and council chair Babalwa Ngonyama of numerous sins, including misleading the university about the resignations of various academics and executives.

That the panel has recommended that the university apologise in writing to those who were maligned, as well as cover the legal costs of academics and former executives who took it to court, is what is known in US politics as “bad optics” for UCT.

Having “confronted the corrosion of its governance”, the report said, it was now time for UCT to restore the public’s confidence.  

That might take a while. But perhaps the convocation can take a few lessons from the great blaze of 2021. 

Fire in the fynbos floral kingdom is, biologically speaking, critical for regeneration. It stimulates plants to release seeds, which then germinate and, all going well, produce a fresh generation of flowers three or four years later. 

No bets, though, on how long it will take the university’s reputation and morale to rise from the ashes.  

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