In September we remember the life of Steve Biko and celebrate our heritage.
One can’t avoid the urge to recall Professor Bongani Mayosi (January 28, 1967 – July 27, 2018) in the black excellence lineage of revolutionaries like Biko, who embodied what they stood for, adopting excellence as their form of protest.
In Biko’s I write what I like: Steve makes a call to the black man to return to being most fully human. He says: “The first step for the black man is to walk back towards himself and pump life back into his empty shell.”
The life of Prof Mayosi, a rural boy who came from Ngqamakwe and traversed many worlds – through St John’s College Mthatha to Natal University, Oxford and UCT (where he met his end) – is proof of the power of discipline, dedication and focus in unlocking the infinite potential that many are born with.
There are three stages of development that the South African black professional can relate to and draw inspiration from with regards to Professor Mayosi.
The first is his life as a student. Justice Nambitha Dambuza of the Supreme Court of Appeal recalls how Bongani the student was always focused and in pursuit of academic excellence at Alan Taylor Residence in KwaZulu-Natal.
Committed to all aspects of his life, Mayosi completed his matric at the tender age of 16 and always achieved distinction.
Since he was young and had a full command of his time, he took a break from his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery studies and pursued a Bachelor of Medical Science in record time, which enhanced his learning and expanded the body of knowledge from which he would feed his intellectual rigour and scholarship.
At Alan Taylor he met the love of his life and is reported to have saved up some of his bursary funds to pay lobola for his wife. This is true testament to the soul of the man who was as committed to professional life as he was to his family and community.
The life of Mayosi provides a mirror against which we can rehumanise the image of the African leader.
Far too often our personalities of leadership are drawn from the political arena and corporate South Africa. We do not always look at the daunting world of academia, which still needs much work in transforming and driving decolonial thought that should yield transformative modes of research and knowledge production.
Steve Biko said: “The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face.”
Mayosi was a pioneer in fields of practise that may have stemmed from the knowledge expeditions of those world powers. But as Biko had foretold, he became a leading light of what this human face of academia would look like. Much like Biko, who studied medicine, Mayosi’s thirst for knowledge extended far beyond the lecture halls.
He was always in unison with the plight of students even though they were reported to have treated him unkindly. He never betrayed the commitment to transform the academy in the interests of the black student. He has shaped the careers of many medical professionals, researchers and scientists and stood as an archetype for many to model their lives against. This has even resulted in scholarships and awards in his name. His quest for a thousand Black PHDs still remains a challenge to those committed to his legacy to further and realise.
This use of knowledge and education as tools of empowerment was a consistent quality of his, from as far back as being a village boy who took keen interest in the slaughtering of livestock during traditional ceremonies.
In those days he is reported to have used these sessions to try and educate his peers in the kraal about the organs of sheep or cattle, offering free courses in their anatomy.
This is quite ironic considering much work that needs to be done to promote an interest in science and maths and improve education outcomes in those rural communities from which many young people like him are born.
Mayosi’s life reminds us of Daniel Beaty’s poem, Duality Duel, where he says: “There is a battle going on between the nerd and the nigga in me.”
Biko’s political spirituality seems to have found links in what we can possibly call Mayosi’s academic spirituality. Both are illustrious figures of what black professionals and leaders should emulate.
As we remember Biko and celebrate his life, we must add to our inheritance of good names that of Mayosi: the “doctor of hearts”, who gave unto the world a more human face.
Dr Sibongile Vilakazi is the president of the Black Management Forum.