Q&A: Professor Loretta Feris
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Transformation
Despite a year of immense challenges and change, the Transformation portfolio has been hard at work to deliver on its mandate. What have been some of the highlights for 2020?
The University of Cape Town (UCT) marked a milestone on its transformation journey with the launch of the Khoi and San Centre in September. This centre will foreground erased or marginalised indigenous knowledge, rituals, language and “ways of knowing” of the San and Khoi across the university and its communities. During the launch, it was also announced that an undergraduate programme offering Khoekhoegowab would be developed at UCT in the next five years.
Another highlight was the launch of the Mamokgethi Phakeng Scholarship which is self-funded by the vice-chancellor. The scholarship supports black South African women studying science, technology, engineering and maths subjects at postgraduate level at UCT. The first recipients are the Department of Biological Sciences master’s students Shonese Bloy and Muneiwa Tshikuvhe, and the Mamokgethi Phakeng Prize of R5 000 went to PhD candidate in applied mathematics Anele Mavi.
Other highlights include the awarding of the Social Responsiveness Award to Associate Professor Ameeta Jaga and Ms Melissa Franke; the Works of Art Collection committee’s website, www.artcollection.uct.ac.za, which makes art accessible to the public; the commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the Trojan Horse Massacre; and the Bongani Mayosi Legacy Project which honours the late professor with a bibliography, a lecture series, the renaming of the Health Sciences Library to Bongani Mayosi Health Sciences Library, the Mayosi Research Collaborative, the Bongani Mayosi Foundation, and a permanent exhibition of his work.
And then, more broadly, a major highlight has been how we have come together as a university community. Through community action networks, social media groups, chats and online forums, we’ve connected, collaborated and supported one another. In our personal lives and in our work, we’ve centred compassion and kindness and have quickly adapted to a new normal. Thank you to the university community for making these contributions and sacrifices.
The sexual offences ad hoc tribunal (AHT) was launched in September 2019. Please outline its aims and give an update on its work so far?
The AHT was put in place to expedite the process of dealing with sexual offences and deal with the backlog of cases of alleged sexual offences. This, while we are developing a more permanent and formal specialised structure to deal with sexual offences.
The objectives of the AHT are, among others, to ensure that the process is survivor-centred and streamlined, and that it uses appropriately qualified and skilled staff in the assessment of cases. The AHT also aims to ensure that the entire process is compliant with internal policies, external legislation and policy obligations in synergy with the rights of the accused.
One of the most significant outcomes of the AHT has been the constant engagement with survivors. In the past, this was a challenge as the disciplinary system, which handled all types of cases, left little room for focused attention. Additionally, the AHT introduced the use of alternative methods of leading evidence. For example, in one case the complainant provided evidence via a Skype audio link. The outcome was a conviction and sentence.
By March 2020, the AHT considered two categories of cases: 36 were inherited from the Legal Services Office, and a further 32 were reported since it came into effect. Of the 36 backlogged cases reported in the years preceding the establishment of the AHT, 20 have been finalised and are off the tribunal court roll. The rest are ready to proceed to trial.
Of the 32 cases that were reported post the establishment of the AHT, 11 are trial-ready (pre-hearings have been concluded). Noting that there was a period during which cases could not progress due to both the year-end examinations and the vacation period, the AHT has made considerable progress on cases in a short space of time.
The transition to online learning was particularly challenging for students who do not have access to resources such as personal computers, Wi-Fi and even a dedicated space to study. How has the portfolio helped?
Firstly, I want to acknowledge again, as I have in campus communications, that we knew this would not be an easy transition especially considering the vastly different socio-economic conditions under which students are learning. So, I want to thank students for doing their best under these difficult circumstances and staff for stepping in to support them.
One of the ways in which we have supported students during lockdown is by making peer counsellors available to them, through the Office for Inclusivity & Change (OIC) and Student Wellness Service (SWS), covering four focus areas: (1) telephonic or online counselling sessions for common topics such as academic concerns, relationship or family issues, adjustment difficulties, coping with anxiety or depression, and substance abuse; (2) maintenance and promotion of overall health and wellness; (3) socio-emotional adjustment; and (4) academic support.
Another way is ensuring the continued support of survivors of sexual assault. We’ve done this through the OIC’s weekly online Survivor Support Group.
A third way is by continuing to centre inclusion. The OIC developed a toolkit (in the form of infographics) to spark conversation around the needs of students who live in an environment that is not conducive to remote learning. The toolkit explores how race, gender, class and disability play a role in access to resources that are important for teaching and learning. It offers visual representations of the experiences and reflections of diverse and marginalised students. We wanted the university community to think of these infographics as a springboard for conversations on how we can come together to make sure no one is left behind.
You also published the UCT Transformation Report 2019 this year. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Yes. The report puts a spotlight on the people, spaces and actions which contributed to transformation in 2019. It demonstrates the work of hundreds of people who convened across the university, and individually or collectively, took action to combat inequality and further transformation, diversity and inclusion.
This report stands out because, for the first time, UCT employed transformation benchmarks. These markers allow us to systematically track our progress in relation to transformation.
In addition, we also hoped that the design of the report could be used as an advocacy tool for transformation, and to mark the release of the report, a public panel discussion with some of the contributors to the report was hosted in July.
UCT strengthens SGBV survivor support
In November, the Office for Inclusivity & Change (OIC), which reports directly to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Transformation, announced it had joined forces with Rape Crisis to strengthen support services to survivors of sexual offences.
The OIC provides institutional responses to transformation, disability, and cultural change for staff and students, and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The OIC has “a small staff with a massive task” and the partnership with Rape Crisis is, therefore, a strategic intervention designed to maximise and enhance the skills and capacity of the OIC’s existing survivor support service.
In consultation with Rape Crisis, the OIC has worked collaboratively to make changes in the operations of the office and to improve their skills in counselling, trauma support and containment.
Survivor support has been strengthened by the launch of the Ad Hoc Tribunal on Sexual Misconduct, set under the auspices of the DVC: Transformation and led by UCT’s legal counsellor Anne Isaac and her team. Survivors now benefit from a seamless debriefing and counselling support service from the moment of reporting through to the tribunal or informal process.
The collaboration between the OIC and Rape Crisis has also seen the appointment of survivor support case officer and counsellor Yumna Seadat. She works alongside UCT’s Student Wellness Service (SWS) to ensure a smooth transition and handover of survivors, should they be referred to the SWS. Seadat also facilitates the OIC’s online Survivor Support Group, which provides a space for survivors to form broader connections with peers with similar experiences, reducing feelings of isolation.
UCT Women’s Day celebration event
This year’s virtual Women’s Day event celebrated the womxn of UCT by highlighting their research on gender-based violence, contraception, HIV risk and building capacity in the field of oceanography. Womxn were treated to a performance by renowned writer, performer and poet Siphokazi Jonas, and a mini-concert by the Kamva Quintet featuring Lana Crowster.
Hosted by UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, the keynote address was delivered by UCT Chancellor Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe. Other notable speakers included UCT Chair of Council, Babalwa Ngonyama.
Presentations by ForWomxnByWomxn research grantees, Professor Floretta Boonzaier, Professor Janet Hapgood and Dr Katye Altieri highlighted the work UCT women are doing in their respective fields.
WUN backs UCTʼs San and Khoi Research Unit
The Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) has thrown its weight and funding, amounting to £10 000, behind the establishment of the San and Khoe Research Unit at UCT. This financial support will ensure the implementation of key initiatives by and in the unit.
The San and Khoe Research Unit is an interdisciplinary team that will address important research questions around indigeneity, identity, non-racialism and anti-racism within the framework of land reform and language restoration. It will also host cultural programmes, programmes on research ethics and the repatriation of unethically acquired human remains.
It is the result of a partnership between UCT, traditional San and Khoe leadership structures and non-governmental and civic organisations, which led to the formation of the A/Xarra Restorative Justice Forum in 2018.
Dr June Bam-Hutchison, the pre-colonial and heritage studies lead researcher at UCTʼs Centre for African Studies (CAS), was appointed the unit’s interim director on 1 April 2020.
Among the plans for the unit are the mainstreaming of KhoeKhoegowab, an endangered language of the San and Khoe; ultimately adopting KhoeKhoegowab as the fourth official language at UCT; the development of the language course into an undergraduate major degree programme; the establishment of an approved degree programme by 2024 as a co-teaching partnership with the University of Namibia; the establishment of postgraduate degree programmes between 2025 and 2028; and the establishment of the Krotoa Chair in San and Khoe Studies by 2022.
UCT launches milestone Khoi and San Centre
UCT, which is situated on land below Huri ǂoaxa (Hoerikwaggo or the mountain in the sea) that was once home to the Khoi and San, marked a milestone on its transformation journey with the launch of the Khoi and San Centre on 21 September.
The centre will foreground erased or marginalised indigenous knowledge, rituals, language and “ways of knowing” of the San and Khoi clans across the university and its communities.
The centre was launched virtually by Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng via a Summer School webinar titled “Knowing on the wind – #oaba #ans”. The host was the DVC: Transformation Professor Loretta Feris. Guest speakers were UCT’s Dr June Bam-Hutchison of the Centre for African Studies (CAS), the new centre’s home, and Tauriq Jenkins, the chairperson of the A/Xarra Restorative Justice Forum at CAS.
The aim is for it to become the foremost research centre of its kind, producing research of international standing and developing bespoke African philosophies and epistemologies through socially engaged research partnerships in San and Khoi studies. It will also develop a San and Khoi digital archive based on South African minoritised languages and host research and visiting fellows to grow a strong cohort of PhDs in the field.
Funding came from the Mauerberger Foundation; the Western Cape’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport; the national Department of Sports, Arts and Culture; the Community Chest of the Western Cape; and the National Heritage Council of South Africa.
VC pays it forward with new scholarship for black women
Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng has self-funded a new scholarship and a prize for black South African women studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at postgraduate level at UCT. The aim is to pay it forward and drive transformation at the university and beyond.
Donating 10% of her salary to finance the awards, the VC’s contribution will provide wrap-around funding covering tuition, accommodation and a monthly stipend. These funds will be augmented by donations from her corporate speaking engagements.
The launch of the Mamokgethi Phakeng Scholarship took place on 13 March. The recipients are Department of Biological Sciences master’s students Shonese Bloy and Muneiwa Tshikuvhe. In another UCT first, the Mamokgethi Phakeng Prize of R5 000 went to PhD candidate in applied mathematics Anele Mavi.
The VC also introduced Sibongile Zulu, a PhD candidate in mathematics education and a recipient of the Mamokgethi Phakeng Prize at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where she first established this award. Phakeng’s eventual aim is to establish this prize at all 26 universities across the country.
The Development and Alumni Department will manage the annual awards.
From campus cleaning to library assistant
When Mellisa Thomas started her journey as a Properties and Services staff member at UCT in 2011, she could not have imagined that her career direction would change drastically a decade later.
Thomas initially started as a temporary staff member of the campus cleaning team – sporadically filling in for colleagues who were on extended leave. She remembers counting her blessings when she was offered a permanent position.
Then, on 1 September 2020, four months short of her 10th anniversary at UCT, Thomas assumed the role of library assistant at UCT Libraries. Her “heart is smiling”, she said. “I am very excited for this new phase in my life. Itʼs not come easy ...”
To upskill herself during her time on the cleaning team, Thomas enrolled for a higher certificate in supervisory management through the University of South Africa. Once she completed the course, she was determined to broaden her horizons.
She kept an eye on the UCT website for potential job opportunities that would match her skill set. When she came across the advert for a library assistant, she applied without delay.
For this bookworm and single mother of two, a job in the library makes her feel like a kid in a candy store. Part of her new role is ensuring that the bookshelves are packed in the correct order, helping with the sign-out process and facilitating short-term loans and circulations.
Redressing past injustices with art
Reshaping UCT’s art collection and transforming it into a resource for researchers, curators and students is what Associate Professor Nomusa Makhubu aims to achieve during her tenure as the chairperson of the Works of Art Collection (WOAC) committee.
The WOAC committee oversees the display and integration of art into campus life and is unpacking an important question: What does art mean to the wider UCT community? The university boasts a vast visual art collection, which comprises approximately 1 700 artworks across 70 UCT buildings.
The WOAC’s latest addition is a website that makes art more accessible to the UCT community and wider public. It can be accessed at WOAC.
Trojan Horse Massacre: 35 years on
UCT, through its newsroom, UCT News, commemorated the 35th anniversary of the Trojan Horse Massacre on 15 and 16 October.
Contributions to the commemoration came from alumnus and uMkhonto we Sizwe veteran Shirley Gunn; Emeritus Professor Crain Soudien, a teacher at Harold Cressy High School at the time; Dr June Bam-Hutchison, who is based in UCT’s Centre for African Studies and is the interim director of the Khoi and San Centre; and Dr Martha Evans from the Centre for Film and Media Studies.
Together, they recalled the day; spoke to its impact on a local, national and international level; reflected on its meaning today; and paid tribute to those who lost their lives (Jonathan Claasen, Shaun Magmoed, Michael Miranda, Mabhuti Fatman and Mengxwane Mali) and their loved ones.
Quotes from contributors include:
‘Incredible baptism’ for new Health Sciences dean
When Associate Professor Lionel Green-Thompson stepped into his position as UCT’s new dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, it was exactly a day after the institution announced the immediate suspension of classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was, according to the dean, “an incredible baptism” but one that was welcomed as it left no time to second-guess or dither. But, more importantly, the pandemic made evident the commitment, compassion, creativity and resilience of the faculty’s staff and students.
“The faculty was incredibly involved; I really must pay tribute to all of the people who contributed … people made huge contributions to how the [Western Cape] province responded to the epidemic,” said Associate Professor Green-Thompson.
It’s this, the recognition and celebration of staff and students, as well as a strong focus on social accountability, transformation, research and relationships, that form the basis of his commitment as dean.
He summed up the mantra for his tenure in an introductory letter he wrote to the faculty: “I come into the faculty to listen with compassion, to walk with humility and to act with justice.”
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