Mayosi 'was a genius, an A-rated scientist'
... but when she last saw him, 'the hope had gone', says his colleague
Professor Bongani Mayosi “was a genius, an A-rated scientist, and he was tapped into the corridors of power”.
Talking to Times Select yesterday after Mayosi's funeral on Saturday, SA Medical Research Council (MRC) president Professor Glenda Gray added that the last time she met him he had seemed sad, as if “the hope had gone”.
All agreed that the effusive energy that characterised Mayosi, the man with a big smile and a giant intellect, was destroyed after he became dean of the University of Cape Town’s health faculty in 2016 and saw his vision of transformation and unity mangled by competing forces in higher education.
The stresses that broke the spirit of Mayosi, who took his life 10 days ago, are still being contested by these forces even as the nation mourns his death.
Academics who were traumatised by the Fees Must Fall uprising, and are still struggling with the health consequences, said the hostility he endured fuelled his depression.
They saw the light in Mayosi, described as the “torchbearer for the new South Africa”, extinguished over the past 18 months. But most of them declined to speak on the record.Fallist leaders such as Chumani Maxwele, whose defacement of the Rhodes statue at UCT triggered the movement, admit they lobbied Mayosi into taking the politically contested position of dean. But in an opinion article last week, Maxwele blamed UCT managers for not supporting him through the depression that claimed his life.
Mayosi’s family made it clear at the cardiologist’s funeral in Cape Town on Saturday that they knew who to blame.
“He was hardly two weeks in his new position and the protests broke out,” said his sister, Ncumisa Mayosi. “The vitriolic nature of the students and their do-or-die attitude vandalised his soul and unravelled him.
“Their personal insults and abuse cut him to the core, were offensive to his values, and were the opposite of everything he was about.”And Mayosi’s widow, UCT professor of dermatology Nonhlanhla Khumalo, said in a letter to her late husband, read out at the funeral by her friend Khanyisa Vokwana: “During the protests, students sent a list of demands and messages to your private cellphone at all hours. You cared so deeply for people who now treated you as the enemy.”Ncumisa didn’t entirely spare UCT, saying that while he was on sick leave her brother felt an increasing sense of “isolation from his colleagues” and a lack of support from the university and faculty.
“He resigned not once but twice, and on both occasions his resignation was not accepted and he was prevailed upon to carry on,” she said.
Sipho Pityana, chairperson of the UCT council, admitted at the funeral he was having sleepless nights about the university’s culpability in events that led to Mayosi’s suicide.
“Have we become such mindless transformation zealots that we are no longer mindful of the health and wellbeing of those in the halls of academia? Have we become so bloody-minded in our positions that we fail to act with empathy and kindness?” he asked mourners at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.
MRC president Professor Glenda Gray told Times Select that the last time she met Mayosi he had an appointment to meet her and the chairperson of the MRC board to talk about taking over from Gray.“We were going to talk to him about his plans for the future, which included the Centre of Excellence for Cardiac Disease at UCT, and planning for succession. I had had discussions about him succeeding me, and I wanted to take these discussions further.
“He was a genius, an A-rated scientist, and he was tapped into the corridors of power,” said Gray. “We all knew he wasn’t himself but we thought it was a chronic problem, not an acute one.”
Dr Helmuth Reuter from Stellenbosch University, who like Mayosi specialised in heart diseases affecting the poor, noticed he was different when they last met.
“There was a clear change from the person I knew who was always smiling, with a good sense of humour and effusive friendliness. He was taking strain and spoke about stresses linked to Fees Must Fall,” he said. “He was hurt but he still had vigour.”
Before Fallist leaders occupied his office in 2016, Mayosi had marched in his academic gown in support of them.
Gray said: “He was on the frontline of this important movement. He saw how students were struggling and felt their pain, but he was in management. He was caught in the middle. It was very traumatic time for him, and every time he went back to his office it must have triggered these feelings.”Leaders in higher education got caught in the Fees Must Fall crossfire and a significant number have stepped down.
Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of Wits University, said: “If you were a higher education manager you would be caught in a pincer movement, and if you were a black manager you were burdened even more.”
Student leaders reserved their severest criticism for black academics who did not deliver what they expected, said Habib, who is on sabbatical.
“When you couldn’t deliver you were called a coconut, a sellout, and there was racialised rhetoric.”
The politics of violent spectacle and populism, which ruled at the height of Fallist protests at Wits, were polarising and dangerous for progressive thinking and transformation, said Habib.
“They infect the institutions. Today we have lost Bongani. Tomorrow it will be something else.”Max Price, who was UCT vice-chancellor throughout the Fees Must Fall protests, said Mayosi’s death “is a tragic and terrible loss for UCT, the country and medicine globally”. He declined to comment on reports that Mayosi had wished to resign as dean.
“The confidential discussions and ultimate agreements with Prof Mayosi about his desire to step down from the deanship were taken on behalf of the university and faculty,” said Price.
He described the specific and complex pressures of being a senior leader in universities, which Mayosi would have experienced. “One of the frustrating things is being asked to deal with issues we don’t have control over,” said Price.
“Then in periods of crisis you have to make decisions quickly, and the university is not accustomed to that.”
‘Let us not absolve ourselves’
As a brilliant black academic Mayosi led by example, but in an article last week his UCT medical school colleague Dr Lydia Cairncross said “being a beacon and role model [meant] never stumbling, never failing, never showing weakness”.
On top of that, he faced the relentless demands of working in clinical and academic medicine, including “long, stressful hours, the strain of sleep deprivation and feelings of inadequacy in the face of the health system’s failures”.Cairncross wrote: “Let us not absolve the institution of the university, our pathological work culture, overt and covert racism at UCT … and finally, let us not absolve ourselves for not changing this system, for not taking care of ourselves and not taking care of each other.”
Gray said: “What Bongani has taught us is that we need to recognise vulnerability in people and that vulnerability is not weakness. We must take action immediately and intervene when anyone needs help.”