Staff access, support and success

04 November 2022

How is the institution supporting diverse staff members from disparate backgrounds to be included, to fully participate and to grow within UCT?

Staff Access, Support and Success
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What is being tested?

Integration Staff diversity C.1 Progress has been made towards overall diversity (more black, women and disabled staff members) in the faculty/department; with a documented % shift in the previous 12 months.
Integration Inclusive committees C.2 Progress has been made towards equal participation of diverse staff members (more black, women and disabled persons) in committees, advisory bodies and other decision-making entities; with a documented % shift in the previous 12 months.
Integration Fast-tracking success C.3 The faculty/department has developed a pipeline to support and grow black, women and disabled academics and managers.
Integration Supporting potential C.4 Progress has been made towards diversity (more black, women and disabled postgraduate students and postdocs) in the faculty/department; with a documented % shift in the preceding 12 months.
Integration Orientating transformation C.5 Orientation to UCT’s commitment to transformation, inclusivity and diversity is integrated into employee briefings for new employees.
Integration Engaging with staff on diversity C.6 At least one faculty/department-wide learning activity, dialogue or discussion on issues specific to the themes of diversity, inclusion and/or transformation affecting staff.

What does the benchmark reveal?

Since the start of the benchmarking exercise in 2019, allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination between and among staff members have emerged. In 2021, this emerged in the media coverage related to the change in leadership of the transformation portfolio, the alleged mistreatment of Athol Williams (among other disenfranchised staff members) and on social media, where debates about transformation at UCT were often very critical of the university.

While the university has worked to remedy demographic disparities within UCT and more broadly within higher education in South Africa, the affective experience of exclusion still seems to persist (the next inclusivity survey would in/validate this assumption). In 2021, few departments and faculties came close to meeting the criteria associated with this benchmark. While many entities at UCT focused on shifting staff demographics (with some limited success) and engaging staff on issues related to TDI, the focus on parity of representation does not address the insidious and often invisible dynamics of power that create an environment where bullying, harassment and discrimination is not an anomaly, but continues to be an unfortunate norm. In order to change and challenge these dynamics, entities need to create more open, honest and critically conscious conversations which challenge positions of power (including white supremacy, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, etc) and enable the voice and agency of those who the institution has marginalised (black persons, womxn, queer persons, etc).

Integration Almost all departments and faculties reported tracking their staff demographic profile and many engaged with staff on diversity. Some of these engagements on diversity were related to providing psychosocial support to staff in response to the stress and trauma of the COVID-19 period. While many track their staff profile, there were still barriers in some departments and faculties in terms of transforming their staff profile.
Integration Few departments and faculties orientate new staff members to UCT’s commitment to transformation. This challenge is also related to the shift to remote work, and engaging with and welcoming new colleagues was more of a challenge. In addition, many faculties and departments use institutional pipelines; only a few have internal mechanisms for supporting the progress of black, women and disabled staff members.

UCT’s staff demographic profile

Staff Demographic
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Through the employment equity portfolio, UCT has slowly yet successfully shifted the demographic profile of its staff to be more representative of South Africa’s diversity. In line with commentary in previous years, these shifts need to be carefully unpacked, as many positions described as “unskilled” or “semi-skilled” are still held by black and coloured women and men staff members, with very few white or Indian women and men holding any such positions. In a similar vein, white and Indian women and men are over-represented in positions described as “technical workers” or “academically qualified”. This highlights the stark and problematic racial hierarchies that still exist in the organisation. The portfolio is working hard to challenge and combat these dynamics and two important efforts emerged in 2021:

  • Employment Equity Plan and guidance note: The updated Employment Equity Plan describes the goals and steps the university needs to take to further and enliven employment equity. On the other hand, the guidance note is informed by the experience of practitioners and stakeholders in the university and offers in-depth guidance on how the plan can be implemented. For example, the guidance note includes clear recommendations on how to conduct an Employment Equity compliant recruitment process.
  • Employment Equity barrier analysis: In addition to and aligned with the Employment Equity Plan, the portfolio conducted a barrier analysis exercise. The exercise invited stakeholders within the university to share examples and experiences of employment equity-related barriers. While the report is still to be launched, the draft highlights clear challenges faced by academic, professional, administrative and other staff members in relation to race, gender and disability, among other factors.
  • The Fundamentals of Employment Equity training tool developed by Emeritus Professor Martin Hall has ensured that the university is trained for appropriately designing and implementing its Employment Equity plan.
  • Inclusion of planned vacancies and anticipated attrition in the UCT 2022–2026 Employment Equity Plan helped identify how many vacancies will occur in each unit or cluster. Targets based on the national and provincial targets were set against those vacancies.

Which actions contributed to this benchmark?

In addition to tracking the staff demographic profile, entities at UCT implemented a range of programmes to ensure the inclusion of marginalised staff members. For example:

  • Many faculties and departments have developed, implemented or referred black and women staff members to programmes that develop and enable their leadership, academic and research capabilities. For example, some hosted research retreats, others enabled access to funding for womxn or for projects focusing on TDI; another encouraged staff members to pursue their PhDs internationally. This enabled black and women graduate students and young professionals to initiate academic careers. For example, the Turning the Tide project that began in 2020 is a pipeline project which funds PhD studies and postdoctoral fellowships for black South African scholars. It also funds a 3–5 year contract post at lecturer level for a black South African candidate.
  • Many faculties and departments reported that the committees and decision-making bodies within their entity were already diverse in terms of gender and race, but few included persons with disabilities. While the committee spaces were diverse, this doesn’t mean the work and functioning of these structures (often embedded within university hierarchy) is transformative or enables inclusion.
  • Many entities hosted workshops, discussions or learning events (sometimes with the faculty or departmental leadership) on TDI or specific topics including race, gender, sexuality or disability.

Who contributed to this benchmark?

Seven faculties and six non-academic departments contributed to this benchmark.

How effective were the actions?

This benchmark attempts to capture the inclusion of marginalised staff members at UCT in relation to their ability to access the university, fully participate in university life, and succeed and grow within the institution. Faculty, departmental and institutional employment equity efforts have placed a focus on enabling access for marginalised groups to UCT, however these efforts don’t respond to the challenges black, women or queer persons, or persons with a disability may face within the university. For example, in featuring Chimamanda Adichie in an uncritical and non-reflexive manner, hosting a queerphobic online discussion and not holding a UCT-aligned medical doctor with transphobic views to account, the university created a hostile environment for the LGBTQI+ staff members, students and community more broadly. This criticism is not about limiting or silencing views (even discriminatory or prejudicial views); it’s about appreciating that in contexts of power disparities, airing all views leads to the dehumanisation of groups with limited structural or institutional power. For work to be effective in furthering staff inclusion, institutional actors who are complicit in or actively support discrimination, harassment and violence need to held accountable.


Meeting all of the factors underpinning this benchmark would mean the university is only meeting the minimum standard for enabling and supporting marginalised staff and students. To meet these minimum standards more work needs to be done to support, empower and enable marginalised staff members, especially those labelled as “unskilled” or “semi-skilled”, to be able to meaningfully shape the organisation and grow within it. In order to do this, there needs to be a principled alignment with TDI, and clear processes to hold accountable those who are complicit in harassment or discrimination.

An example of the good practice

CHED has initiated a Next Generation Leadership Programme (NGLP) that was populated and started operating in 2021. The NGLP is a cohort-model programme designed to enable early and mid-career staff to participate in leadership development. The programme consciously takes account of the social context of leadership in international and African higher education in the 21st century.

Institutional transformation projects: Office for Inclusivity and Change

In 2021, the OIC ran over 100 distinct workshops reaching an estimated 2 000 staff members across the university. The workshops were offered through the OIC’s inclusivity capacity building, institutional culture and disability portfolios and covered issues related to inclusivity, diversity and transformation. These workshops dealt with themes including staff values; examples of racism, disability colonialism and gender inequality; and co-creating a transformation vision for entities within the university.

The OIC worked hard to develop both digital and decolonial tools and resources in 2021. For example, the OIC experimented with using Mentimeter and other digital tools to create engaging and effective online workshops leading to concrete outcomes, such as inclusion plans and transformation improvement plans. In addition, the OIC experimented with the use of decolonial approaches, including the practice of decolonial dreaming. This culminated in the development of the zine, Another World: queer, decolonial, feminist and anti-racist dreams for higher education.

During 2021, while the COVID-19 pandemic ebbed to some degree, disparities related to race, gender and class continued to affect the work environment. On one hand, it’s important to acknowledge the work that faculties and departments undertook, as well as the ongoing institutional efforts through the OIC and the Employment Equity portfolio. These were effective in supporting and enabling some staff members to grow and develop within the university. However, these efforts on their own were not able to dismantle structures of power in the university that contribute to systemic racism and queerphobia, among other issues.

It’s also important to appreciate the after-life of COVID-19 that lingers in the university. The year 2020 and 2021 were both years of crisis that negatively impacted the mental health, motivation, cohesiveness and connectedness of staff members. This feeling of exclusion, exhaustion and dejection, if not dealt with, will lead to negative consequences for individuals in the university and for the university as a whole.

Warning Signs

Warning signs

In the first three years of capturing data on the benchmarks, entities reported meeting 55–60% of the Staff Access, Support and Success benchmark requirements. This indicates that at a faculty and departmental level, efforts to support staff vary widely. In addition, while efforts tend to focus on demographic disparities, challenges related to power dynamics are left unresolved.



While the above challenges are present, there are several hopeful sparks of change. For example, the focus on offering support to emerging researchers and academics is likely to lead to a new generation of black, women and disabled leaders within the university in years to come.


Transformative awakening

Several painful yet important reports of staff marginalisation and harassment emerged in 2021. The story of Athol Williams, the experiences of queer and trans students and staff members, and stories of bullying shared on social media all highlight the need for deeper, direct and meaningful engagement with those experiencing marginalisation at UCT. Those raising concerns should not be shunned, shamed or silenced, but should instead be heard and invited to inform the university’s TDI efforts.


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