/ 2 November 2022

Reflections on complex leadership transitions in the wake of problems at UCT, Unisa and elsewhere

The University of Cape Town (UCT) council has received a new complaint against embattled vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng from suspended executive director for communication and marketing Gerda Kruger.

Being a leader in a large public interest organisation comes with both privileges and responsibility. In the South African context, the essence of leadership encompasses an ability to manage the multiple contests and conflicts that underpin many of our critical institutions. In the recent past, the leadership profile of such organisations predictably reflected the underlying political structure of the country. 

The elevation of individuals into leadership positions was an intersection of exclusionary practices, denial of opportunities and the widespread influence of particular social networks. Such practices resulted in white males occupying a dominant space in leadership structures that remains evident today, in spite of the abolition of formalised manifestations of discrimination. 

Of particular importance in the South African leadership question, has always been the question of how new leaders avoid being “different figureheads” who do little to alter the leadership profile of their organisations. In large corporations, the elevation of black and female leaders into leadership positions has not always been followed by a similar trend in the next tier of management teams. As a result, multiple exhibits of blue-chip organisations with once-off black and female leadership stories are a common trend. In the banking arena, the appointment of Sizwe Nxasana as the chief executive of the FirstRand Group did not result in a widespread change within the banking sector. 

Rather, the tragic reality of our time is that over the past 20 years, just four other black or  female leaders have reached the chief executive role in the big banks – Sim Tshabalala, Maria Ramos, Basani Maluleke and Daniel Mminele. Such trends reflect an ongoing challenge associated with long-term pipeline development in the sector. 

On the JSE, just seven of the top 100 companies have female chief executives in 2022 and only 14% of the listed companies have a black chief executive. A key aspect of the problem has been identified as the persistent lack of executive support structures for emerging black and female leaders throughout the private sector. This creates a career plateau where the pathway towards leadership roles is truncated and lethargic.

In the public sector, much more headway has been made in fostering the support of female leadership. This has been driven by the political consensus that has emphasised the importance of supporting female leadership as a social imperative.

In spite of these developments, however, a gender-specific element of discrimination still persists across the system. The progress made in opening up access to leadership roles has disproportionately benefited men at the expense of women. And in the instances where women take up leadership roles within institutions and societies where such occurrences are still regarded as an exception, the reactions to the leadership styles tend to mirror these perspectives. 

In 2018, Felicity Menzies published a research article titled Gender Bias at Work: The Assertiveness Double Bind. In the article, it is highlighted that while leadership styles between male and female leaders differ, such differences are marginal. When it comes to leadership and gender stereotypes, however — the perception of how women lead when compared to men — the differences are much greater. 

In one aspect of the study, women were found to receive negative personality criticism in 75% of performance reviews. In the negative personality criticism, being called “bossy” and “off-putting” in terms of leadership style, loomed large in the performance reviews of female leaders. Such findings reflect attitudes that are entrenched in societies across the globe but even more amplified in conservative societies like the ones prevalent in Africa. In South Africa in particular, women leaders and particularly black female leaders, share multiple anecdotes of how stereotyping has remained a persistent feature of their leadership challenges.

For leaders who take the leap and agree to run large, complex organisations, the set of challenges is inevitably complex. The internal contestations regarding strategic direction and leadership are matters that all organisations have to continuously contend with. The diversity of viewpoints and the multiplicity of ideas remains an important element of growing and guiding organisations. When conflicts emerge, the buck still stops with the appointed chief executives of organisations. 

As outsiders, we interact with organisations far less intimately than their regulators and their appointed governance structures. When conflicts then emerge in the open, the natural instinct is to question how the internal mechanisms failed to address the underlying issues before the matters explode into the public domain. The unavoidable consequences of public fallouts are a loss of faith in the integrity of internal systems and damage to the organisation’s standing in the public eye. 

Additionally, the unwritten rule of corporate engagements is that once all the individual conflicts have left the stage, the institution and its credibility have to survive and outlast all conflicts. This has been a practice underpinned by contentious but critical agreements that seek to limit the damage to an institution. In many cases of chief executive and top leadership exits based on grave disagreements, outsiders rarely get provided with a blow-by-blow account of internal conflicts on the understanding that such conflicts may be due to a clash of personalities and viewpoints where the organisation should not be converted into an additional casualty. 

In recent weeks, a few case studies have emerged that indicate that perhaps such practices are not as consistent as one would expect. In the office of the auditor general, a critical public institution of hitherto impeccable standing, a conflict between the chief people officer and the auditor general, emerged in the public arena as the chief people officer made allegations that were ultimately found to be without merit. 

The resolution of the conflict came with enormous damage to the institution whose processes became the subject of renewed scrutiny. Surprisingly, in seeking to air the grievances, the chief people officer sought to depend on the sensational rather than the substantive elements of the dispute. This was illustrated by the focus of the headlines on allegations of corruption which — in the context of a country where corrupt practices are endemic — immediately vaulted the conversation into the terrain of “yet another black leader has fallen for the temptations of corruption”. 

The problem with such practices and the way society engages with issues of this nature, is that catchphrases dominate the narrative and very little attention is paid to the underlying issues before the conclusion is reached. As a result, while the conclusion has now been that there was no corruption, after all, far too many exhibits and archives of the story have the lingering cloud of corruption as the entry point into the conversation. 

Similarly, in the higher education landscape, the recent issues relating to Unisa and the University of Cape Town (UCT) have shown similar traits of sensational statements dominating the headlines; while the underlying stories offer a less binary and more complex set of facts. In the Unisa case, the allegations regarding the acquisition of laptops for R72-million and the renovation of the vice-chancellor’s residence emerged in the public discourse as exhibits of underlying corrupt practices pinned on the Unisa vice-chancellor.

Much less explicit and belatedly discovered, was the fact that none of the issues emanated from unilateral practices by the vice-chancellor. Rather, they seemed to be the result of institutional practices that may well fall short of optimal models. However, in a binary discourse that dominates public engagements, such complexities get lost in translation. 

At UCT, the trigger point for the current crisis seems to have been an apparent exodus of senior administrators within the institution. Such exits have naturally been placed squarely on the shoulders of the leader of that institution. In the initial public discourse of the matter, the Daily Maverick boldly stated that almost half of the executive team at the university has been lost over the past four years. This period coincides with the tenure of current vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

Naturally, such a high attrition rate in one institution seems to be a red flag, particularly in light of the multifaceted challenges faced by the higher education sector at large. An institution that suffers from high turnover is unlikely to achieve consistent levels of stability. The surprising element, however, is that only when analysing the granular details, do we get to see that the exodus is a combination of avoidable and unavoidable factors. 

According to the university, as quoted in the Daily Maverick, of the 30 members of the senior leadership team, just 11 had actually vacated their roles in the four-year period. Five of the 11 were subject to the great demon called the passage of time as they actually reached mandatory retirement age. An additional two members took early retirement which – while it could have probably been avoided — reflects a blend of personal choices and perceptions about the future of the institution they were part of. Of the remaining four, two were actually subject to disciplinary processes which — given the rather protective nature of the labour law regime in South Africa — indicates that the best option for both the institution and the affected employees was to part ways. 

At the end of that granular analysis, it then turns out that from the 30 members of the senior leadership team, just two had chosen not to renew their terms. While others are rumoured to be negotiating their exits, they do remain part of the team until those exit processes are actually finalised. The idea that such an institution has been subjected to the loss of “almost half its leadership team”, must leave us all intrigued about the issue at hand. 

At the crux of it, seems to be the dispute about the exit of Professor Lis Lange where accounts of what transpired vary between the council, the senate and the council chairperson. At this stage, a process is under way to get a better understanding of what the key issues were. That UCT could not contain the process until it became a public fallout, is also reflective of the urgent need for governance processes to be scrutinised for their fitness for purpose. 

A comparison of peer institutions — the University of the Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch University and the University of Pretoria — indicates that senior leadership teams in higher education institutions are not the poster children for long-term stability. At Wits, just two members of the senior executive team that was in place when the new vice-chancellor took up the reins remain in place. At the University of Pretoria, just three members of the senior executive team pre-dated the current vice-chancellor. At Stellenbosch, 38% of the senior executive team took office after the current rector. The renewal and reinforcement of leadership teams at universities is therefore not an anomaly where UCT stands out as an outlier. 

Given the prominence of the institution, it is perhaps unsurprising that the focus on its leadership transitions would be a matter of public interest. But as we see with the cases of the auditor general and Unisa, being a high-profile institution whose issues attract more public interest than others, does not make those issues or that institution an outliner in the governance and leadership developments that all major institutions continuously manage.

An unavoidable observation in all these case studies is that terms similar to the ones found by the Menzies study to be prevalent in the assessment of female leaders have continuously formed part of the discourse regarding the challenges at Unisa, UCT and the auditor general. Such developments are as concerning as they are unsurprising. They remain the great leadership hurdle that women have to conquer in their leadership journey. As we await to see the finalisation of the processes at UCT, many more lessons will emerge that will hopefully assist other institutions to understand leadership transitions. 

Polo Leteka-Radebe is president of the Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.