UCT Vice Chancellor Talks Decolonizing Academia

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By Tasneem Jacobs

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 8 of VARSITY.


Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng sat down with Professor Pumla Gqola at the Open Book Festival to discuss her role as Vice Chancellor and her vision of the future of decolonized academia.

On Wednesday September 5th, University of Cape Town’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng participated in the 2018 Open Book Festival for a talk entitled ‘Decolonizing Academia.’ The discussion saw Professor Phakeng opine on a range of topics, most notably her thoughts on the current state of UCT as well as her vision of the future within the context of decolonization. The highly anticipated event was hosted by writer and UCT alum Professor Pumla Gqola, garnering a full audience, many of whom were current UCT students.


Photo by Tasneem Jacobs


Though both women enjoyed an easy rapport and camaraderie throughout their exchange, Professor Gqola did not shy away from asking thought-provoking questions. Many of the questions had been previously echoed by the general public since the start of Professor Phakeng’s term as Vice Chancellor. On her role as an academic leader at the university, Professor Phakeng stated “I feel like I bring legitimacy to the academic environment.” She attributes both her career and personal growth to finding a way to balance the demands of engaged scholarship as well as administration, with both aspects being integral to her role. The Vice Chancellor, who holds a PhD in Mathematics Education from the University of the Witwatersand, maintains that she is first and foremost an academic. She affirmed that administration is her job, while academia is her career.

The question on everybody’s mind however, was around what decolonization looks like for UCT. Professor Gqola put it bluntly: “Do you think UCT needs decolonizing?” To this, Professor Phakeng replied without hesitation, “UCT needs decolonizing and I think most of UCT knows that… the difficulty is how to get there.” She elaborated on this point by emphasising that the task of decolonization is a complex and multifaceted one, noting that each academic institution is inherently unique. Thus, there is no singular way in which to decolonize each one. For decolonization to be truly fruitful, according to the Vice Chancellor, it must progress beyond solely the academic curriculum and into the ethos of the institution; an ideal she hopes to reach at UCT.

Professor Phakeng stated previously during the talk that within the academic arena, “excellence is non-negotiable.” She expressed an inclination to critique her own views on excellence upon her arrival at UCT amidst protest action and upheaval. Despite seeking to decolonize the university, she stressed that the standard of excellence must be maintained and continue to grow. These comments elicited mixed responses on social media, with many calling the Vice Chancellor out for prioritising excellence in the institution above the mental health of its students and faculty. This follows the untimely suicide of Professor Mayosi, which spurred discourse around mental health concerns. Both professors also made mention of the importance of discussing excellence in relation to black female scholars in South Africa.

When asked about her ideal vision for UCT in five years’ time, she answered that she hopes for a more inclusive space with a focus on stronger presence in townships such as Khayelitsha, furthering a sense of African identity. Professor Phakeng, who is still within the first 100 days of her tenure, has had to deal with what Professor Gqola called a “landmine” of controversy around the institution. Despite this, the Vice Chancellor expressed positive hope for the future of UCT, seeking to engender feeling on campus “that doesn’t feel like we are at Oxford”.

For a full account of the talk’s proceedings, find the live twitter thread here.


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