The death of Professor Bongani Mayosi shows the need for institutions of higher learning, especially historically white institutions, to be sensitive about how the embedded cultures welcome or reject progressive black academics.  Picture: Sophia Stander
The death of Professor Bongani Mayosi shows the need for institutions of higher learning, especially historically white institutions, to be sensitive about how the embedded cultures welcome or reject progressive black academics. Picture: Sophia Stander

Report into UCT academic’s death exposes varsity ethos

By Vuyisile Msila Time of article published Jun 28, 2020

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The Fallist Movements in 2016 demonstrated the inequalities in our society and universities. Many people haggled over the meaning of higher education in a transforming society.

Role-players fought, still unsure whether they wanted transformation or decolonisation in campuses.

Universities were slowly, in an unintended way, promoting the necessary debates in society on the objectives of higher education.

Higher education institutions were doing what they were established to promote: the sharpening of minds for the betterment of society.

Of course, several harangued the students for bolstering movements that would undermine standards and introduce new cultures that are inimical to global best practices.

The calls by students meant “dropping the bar” as they intensified the calls for massification and decolonisation. The traditionalists were wary that the calls for the systemic changes were going to be against creaming that the universities have always been known for. Some were lamenting that the Verwoerdian dream would crumble, as many black children would be able to graze in pastures not meant for them.

During these times, society was conscientised as they became aware of student struggles at universities, especially historically white institutions. We understood that students had a case and many of us empathised.

Yet, in these struggles, we overlooked the struggles of many black academics who stood with the students physically and symbolically. We forgot those heroes in lecture halls who shared the dreams of transformation and decolonisation despite intransigent university faculties and administrations.

This week, the release of the report probing Professor Bongani Mayosi’s premature death at UCT nudged our conscience and posed serious questions. Titled "Enquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding Professor Mayosi’s Tenure: Crucible for Senior Black Academic Staff?" the report unmasks Mayosi’s last journey, cut short by a country that seeks epistemic freedom amid unbending university traditions.

Led by chairperson Thandabantu Nhlapo, with Somadoda Fikeni, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Nomfundo Walaza, the report gives the reader a bird’s-eye view into the scenario at UCT in a time of a dark cloud when a bright star had to succumb under tempestuous gales of bewilderment and wanton malignity.

The report also shows that in our correct empathy with the students, we forgot to acknowledge the academics who suffered in silence in their institutions’ intransigence as they joined bigger struggles of their communities.

The report explicates how Mayosi baffled his own line managers when he marched with the students who were demanding social justice and free, decolonised education.

In historic UCT, the demand was also to challenge colonialism seen to be in the DNA of all our universities. So macabre and paradoxical that Mayosi would be strangled by university systems that are reticent to transform.

The report explains how Mayosi took up his deanship position at a turbulent time. Soon after, the students were to occupy his office in their #OccupyFHS in their demand for the Faculty of Health Sciences’ (FHS) transformation. Mayosi had later indicated to colleagues how he planned to spend time with the students for the rest of 2016 to understand what was happening with the health and rehab students at UCT.

Of course, now we know that this, unfortunately, never materialised. He wanted to examine the curriculum to see where it could be meaningfully overhauled. Some colleagues applauded him for this and, of course, some argued that he was, ominously, losing his hold on the position as dean.

This was a sign of weakness to numerous of the latter group. Mayosi believed students had legitimate demands. The overhaul in curriculum has become critical in the search for a just and responsive curriculum. Unfortunately, many faculties have been reluctant to step into uncharted waters, even when aware they are accommodating only Western knowledge in their practice.

Time has come to realise the importance of all knowledge as higher education institutions shift from apartheid and colonial bias towards a more ecological approach.

When Mayosi was presented with FHS students’ grievances, he understood the students’ challenges. He was in an unenviable position, though, where some of his colleagues perceived him as giving in to unruly students. But Mayosi understood the need to be part of the students' struggle.

The report points out how when he joined the students, his presence created some reassurance, thus warming the hearts of many students.

For the first time, the students felt that they mattered. Mayosi and some of his cream of academics who are National Research Foundation A-rated scientists felt that the time had come for them to be perceptive of the everyday struggles of their black and poor students. They had begun to see the need to look at research and scholarship and their role to change the lives of black students. Mayosi’s last days show how difficult transformation can be.

Transformation initiatives are usually met with suspicion and derision. Some students were discourteous to Mayosi and numerous staff were instigators of such disrespect.

The report rightly states that black academics are not monolithic, hence blacks and whites supported institutional cultures rather than transformation that Mayosi stood for. It was unfortunate he endured turbulence that assailed him physically and mentally.

The death of Mayosi shows the need for institutions of higher learning, especially historically white institutions, to be sensitive about how the embedded cultures welcome or reject progressive black academics.

The transformation initiatives have revealed the tensions between progressive faculty and those sceptical of transformation. Furthermore, they have also shown how even the top black voices may simply drown while their institutions swivel anti-clockwise.

Mayosi was killed by a system that has disregard for social justice and epistemic freedom. He was suffocated by a system that is disrespectful, and does not care about life as well as about revival of ideas in a university. His death was symbolic of many black academics who are living-dead in campuses rocked by unbending rules that continue to be racist.

Mayosi’s violent passing should perpetually remind us of the deadly battles that senior, progressive black academics have to fight at their campuses. Most of the times unnoticed, not heralded; they had become silent warriors whose fight against colonialism and hatred pervaded.

* Msila is a director at Unisa’s Department of Leadership and Transformation. He writes in his personal capacity.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Indpendent

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