UCT has celebrated and honoured the legacy of the late cardiologist Professor Bongani Mayosi through a collection of projects. Picture: J'Enine May/UCT
UCT has celebrated and honoured the legacy of the late cardiologist Professor Bongani Mayosi through a collection of projects. Picture: J'Enine May/UCT

UCT failed black professor and student activists anger aggravated psychological problems - report

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Jun 28, 2020

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An explosive report says the top leadership at the University of Cape Town failed to heed the signs of mental illness which apparently resulted in the death of scientist Bongani Mayosi.

The report indicates then-newly incumbent vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, her predecessor Dr Max Price, line manager Lis Lange, colleagues and students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) collectively failed to detect the distress shown by Mayosi, whose optimistic plans as dean to take the Faculty of Health Sciences to another level were tragically ended by his death.

Mayosi, 51, was hailed as one of the best examples of black excellence and a symbol of transformation at UCT, but his death on July 27, 2018, opened wounds that had been boiling beneath the surface at the university long before the nation-wide student protests over fees escalated on campus.

In September 2016, Mayosi returned from sabbatical at Harvard University, where he worked on his vision for the faculty. His wife, Professor Nonhlanhla Khumalo, and close colleagues indicated that he returned filled with enthusiasm and was looking forward to his tenure as dean.

“He was full of ideas and engaged colleagues on his vision.”

But the turmoil on campus and anxieties before his death saw Mayosi become a symbol of pain and division at UCT, highlighting deep-seated transformation issues that black staff and students say have not been adequately addressed at the university.

His last few months involved several attempts to quit and promises of alternative roles that did not materialise, which some say broke him, along with the alleged lack of respect by students and fierce criticism by colleagues, all of which appear in a 157-page report entitled Enquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding Professor Bongani Mayosi’s Tenure: Crucible for Senior Black Academic Staff?

The authors of the comprehensive report released last Monday believe that, by honouring his legacy, the university could provide a positive memorial to black academic excellence and sustainable transformation to which the cardiologist devoted his life.

The panel made up of Dr Somadoda Fikeni, Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Emeritus Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo and Nomfundo Walaza was established by the UCT Council on September 10, 2018, to probe Mayosi’s death.

The report states that his death came on the heels of protracted student-led protests which had rocked universities nationwide and manifested themselves on an unprecedented scale at UCT from 2015 to 2017.

Mayosi became a focal point at the university as students saw him as someone who showed empathy and listened to their struggles.

But things turned ugly as protests intensified and he faced the wrath of students, whose cause he supported, came under fire from colleagues and seemingly was cast adrift by management despite several threats to resign.

As the pressure and protests boiled over, Mayosi felt defeated, according to a colleague, “because he felt that he had severely compromised his integrity and that he had lost the confidence of both students and staff”.

“He phoned me one morning when... it was early 2017 when a student, a whole student uprising had started again and students were marching to the faculty and he phoned me and he said, ‘Please come I can’t face the students.’

“And these are students from upper campus. And I kind of remember thinking at the time, you know, this is almost like a PTSD that, you know, you’re just being pulverised so often by the students, so just the prospects of this flaring up again. I mean, for him to find me and say, ‘Please come’, I was, I mean, I was quite taken aback because it wasn’t... he hadn’t often asked me for help.”

The report says UCT failed to acknowledge that it was dealing with a person who was not well and unable to make rational decisions.

“Even though he mentioned to close colleagues that he was depressed and was being treated by a psychiatrist, there is no evidence that appropriate interventions took place or that support was provided, nor is there proof that his condition was communicated through channels up the hierarchy.”

Khumalo told the panel that on July 4, 2018, her husband went to see his superior, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Associate Professor Lis Lange for permission to go on accumulated sabbatical leave before resigning.

She recalled that on his return from the meeting, it was not clear what had transpired. Khumalo surmised that his request had been denied.

Mayosi’s report on the meeting was unclear, leading Khumalo to write to Phakeng (deputy vice-chancellor at the time) to request a meeting, which was then scheduled for the next day.

Khumalo assumed that she would be accompanying her husband to see the vice-chancellor, but on the day he phoned to tell her that he would go alone.

Khumalo reported that she has often been troubled by the question of what reasons might have led to the sabbatical not being concluded, since she believed that Mayosi accumulated such leave and clearly needed it in order to transform the vision of the pro-vice chancellor position into a concrete plan and develop a comprehensive proposal.

Exactly a month before his death, Phakeng and Price discussed Mayosi’s attempt to leave and planned to meet him to discuss establishing a Centre of Excellence at UCT, which he (Mayosi) would lead as pro-vice-chancellor.

According to Phakeng, Mayosi had agreed, citing his passion for working on the diseases of the poor, for the sufferers of which he had earlier coined the phrase “the bottom billion”.

Mayosi had hoped Phakeng would discuss the strategy with the Dean’s Advisory Committee and the heads of departments and, ultimately, the UCT Communication and Marketing Department, which would have made a formal announcement on July 20.

Sunday Tribune

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