We all are to blame for not protecting Bongani Mayosi
We must guard such gifted leaders from what is, ironically, an attack on black excellence
A few months ago I met Professor Bongani Mayosi in his office at UCT. I had long admired this friend and fellow traveller in the tumultuous world of South African higher education.
What struck me about his office was how modest it was, even drab, compared with any dean’s suite I had seen before. And there was something about his demeanour. He was quiet and reserved, unlike the energetic, ever-smiling and engaging man I had met before. But I shrugged it off as the pressures of deanship of one of the toughest and most prestigious academic faculties in the country.
Last week, this A-rated scholar, who became known throughout the world for his groundbreaking research on the relationship between heart disease and poverty, killed himself.
Since the violent student protests of 2015-16, several black vice-chancellors and deans have stepped down from their positions in some of the country’s leading universities – including the dean of law and the head of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town, and the vice-chancellors of Pretoria, the Free State and Nelson Mandela universities, to name a few. One common thread runs through these resignations: the high costs of leadership in South African higher education.
It would be irresponsible to speculate on the specific reasons that Professor Mayosi took his own life. Depression is a complex disease and suicide can have many causes.We know Professor Mayosi struggled with depression in recent times. We also know that he suffered greatly when students occupied his offices during the fees protests, humiliating and insulting this gentle man to the extent that he had to take two months of leave to recover. He never did and was admitted to hospital recently as a result of psychological breakdown. That wonderfully broad smile was no longer there.
I have been there. During my time at the University of the Free State I lived daily with the relentless personal attacks through Bloemfontein’s Afrikaans newspaper, the death threats in bulky envelopes, the open hostility of some staff, the deliberately false accusations sent to family members, the for-sale signs placed outside your home, and the relentless pressure of a few very vocal students acting on behalf of outside political parties.
I survived because I had a great team of fellow leaders, strong encouragement from staff, black and white, and overwhelming support from the broader student body. It helped, also, to have grown up on the streets of the Cape Flats – you know a gangster when you see one.
It is impossible to quantify the loss of Professor Mayosi. It takes years and years to build up such an impressive research profile and to be awarded an A-rating in any field. There are no other black medical scientists with such distinction. This professor was an inspiration to generations of students in one of the most demanding disciplines, medicine. His death is a severe body blow to campus, community and country.Now he is gone. Some of the student protesters who harassed him now herald him as a great scientist and role model. The university is to blame, says one of their leaders – not those who occupied his office for two weeks and humiliated this humble man. Said a senior UCT professor: “They made this giant of a scholar the lightning rod of Fallist anger” until “the man with a vision was replaced by a man without light in a dark, dark place”. There is no accountability in this dangerous game of deflection.
A chapter in my recent book, As by fire, carries the title: “The personal costs of crisis leadership.” It was intended as a warning of precisely what happened to Professor Mayosi when universities tolerate and even applaud the harassment and humiliation of academic leaders.
Now more than ever, our institutions have to start taking account of the human toll of transformation on the thin layer of exceptional scholars and leaders on our campuses; we must protect such talent from what is, ironically, an attack on black excellence. “Make no mistake,” one of UCT’s main student leaders told me over a cup of coffee, “those students hate you because of what you have achieved.”
Some would argue that not all of us have the emotional and mental hardwiring to take on these difficult leadership roles. Perhaps, but that kind of reasoning makes decent, gifted and visionary leaders like Bongani Mayosi the problem. Professor Mayosi is decidedly not at fault.
And with the tragic death of this 51-year-old academic leader we should hang our collective heads in shame.