'He was called a coconut and a sellout ... he just couldn't deal with it'
UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng says the institution should have listened to Mayosi after his 2017 breakdown
With the country reeling from the tragic self-inflicted death on Friday of one of our top clinicians, researchers and medical leaders, Professor Bongani Mayosi, academics at the University of Cape Town took stock of the climate at their institution, asking if his suicide could have been prevented.
Some have viewed Mayosi’s death as a direct result of the emotional stress he suffered when the students in the Fees Must Fall movement turned against him after he had supported them.
The new UCT vice-chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, issued a statement on his death on Tuesday, saying he was the reason she applied for her job.
“He sat with me one day and explained that I needed to offer myself for this leadership role not for my own career but for the good of the institution‚ for the transformation of UCT‚” said Phakeng.
“He knew that black students and staff members needed inspiration. That was one of his motivations in life: to inspire others to excellence in their studies and research and service to others.”Phakeng also spoke about the stress brought on by the Fees Must Fall movement, on both staff and students. She said Mayosi was called names by activists, including “coconut”.
His death was an opportunity “to reflect on the loss we have experienced and how we can become stronger‚ both as individuals and as a community”.
On Sunday, Phakeng confirmed what an inside source from the health science faculty had told Times Select off the record: that Mayosi had been booked off for several weeks in 2017 after a nervous breakdown in the wake of the Fees Must Fall activities, and had collapsed in his office after he returned.
According to a transcript published by The Daily Vox, Phakeng told a faculty meeting, referring to the campus protests: “While there might be other things that happen in your life that can push you over the edge, there is a lot of time spent at work and that can do that. We asked if Mr Mayosi has a history of depression and they said he didn’t until 2016.
“That day he was called a coconut. That day he was called a sellout. He just couldn’t deal with. It affected him. That’s not to say that that’s the only thing that pushed him over the edge.
“But that’s one of the things that contributed. I can keep quiet. I can do that and be complicit in the silence and say that never happened. We all loved him, we always helped him, we always affirmed him. We can all say that to ourselves, but we know that it happened,” Phakeng told the faculty meeting.She confirmed that he had tendered his resignation to then vice-chancellor Dr Max Price but remained on.
“It is a pity that we as an institution did not listen to him then. We should have,” said Phakeng.
She said the nature of the disruption of classes during the protests had rendered some staff members “dysfunctional” with fear.
The protests of 2016 and 2017 had “not been kind to him”, and it was stressful for him when the students turned on him.
That had been after he supported them when the deans of other faculties had resisted the shutdown.Meantime, support and letters of condolence continued to circulate around the country.
The University of the Western Cape’s communication department declined to comment on the context of his suicide, and said: “The UWC community is deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Professor Bongani Mayosi. Professor Mayosi’s passing is a great loss for the academic community and he will be sorely missed. The UWC community sends its deepest condolences to Professor Mayosi’s family, friends and colleagues.”
Dr Molapo Qhobela, CEO of the National Research Foundation, said Mayosi “never forgot the challenges he had to overcome, and he therefore dedicated himself to mentoring and supporting students faced with similar challenges. South Africa has lost a brilliant mind, a kind and gentle soul and an advocate for the scientific research project who still had a lot to contribute.”
Another source, who did not want to be named, said: “It was hard enough for white academics who had always been on the side of liberation. Many were activists. And many since fled the universities after coming face to face with cruelty.
“But it was even harder for black academics like Mayosi who wanted everyone to be their best self despite challenges. After really listening to the students, and feeling at one with them, it was difficult to be caught on the receiving end of their cruelty.
“Now people think twice before speaking out in a climate where such cruelty was allowed and the leaders of the institution didn’t stand up to it.”