Shameful role of student protesters laid bare in report on Prof Bongani Mayosi's 2018 suicide

University's about-turn on offer of redeployment was also 'devastating'

25 June 2020 - 06:30 By Tanya Farber
Prof Bongani Mayosi's mother Nontle Mayosi and his wife Nonhlanhla Khumalo at his memorial service in 2018.
Prof Bongani Mayosi's mother Nontle Mayosi and his wife Nonhlanhla Khumalo at his memorial service in 2018.
Image: Ruvan Bomhoff

Almost two years ago, the death of Prof Bongani Mayosi, at his own hands, shocked the campus community of UCT, the medical fraternity, and the country.

Mayosi was a beacon of light in the profession, bringing together the hard science of medicine with the socioeconomic realities of how poverty fuels various diseases.

He would likely have played a leading role in exploring how certain comorbidities - with much higher prevalence in poorer areas - are placing some South Africans at a far greater risk of a Covid-19 death than others.

This week, an independent report commissioned by UCT was released, and in its almost 160 pages one finds a heartbreaking narrative of a man who arrived in a leadership position full of passion, but who was tormented by students and then let down by his peers - to the point where taking his own life seemed the only escape.

The panel, headed by UCT’s former senior deputy vice-chancellor Prof Thandabantu Nhlapo, found that the #FeesMustFall protests, which erupted just days after he took up his deanship, were “the single most influential factor directly and indirectly affecting his deanship”.

It says, the “energy and enthusiasm he brought with his vision was soon dimmed by the relentless and sometimes aggressive stance of the student protesters”.

The panel looked not only at Prof Mayosi’s experience of the deanship, but also the broader issues at play at the time.

The report reveals quotes from those interviewed, including students who admit that the treatment of the dean at the hands of those protesting was unacceptable.

Speaking about the occupation of the dean’s office, one interviewee said: “Somebody in the crowd suggested that there be an occupation and so then we occupied, but I remember not feeling comfortable with that decision primarily because I think protest is good for anarchy, but you can’t build with anarchy.

"I remember hearing somebody speak to him in a way that was very disrespectful. I know for a fact that we let him down. I remember that meeting dismantling and then becoming just … you know, just like a name-calling of prof.”

Prof Bongani Mayosi was considered "a scholar of high academic and research profile nationally, continentally and globally”.
Prof Bongani Mayosi was considered "a scholar of high academic and research profile nationally, continentally and globally”.
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

Based on several in-depth interviews, the panel uncovered a tragic story of  bullying by protesting students, followed by lack of support from his peers, and a rigid institutional bureaucracy that prevented him from being redeployed to a position he had been told he could take up.

The report describes the student protests as being “confrontational” and as having a “deeply traumatising and polarising impact” on staff and students.

At the time of his death, his sister Ncumisa Mayosi said to the more than 2,000 people at his memorial that her brother had no depression prior to taking up the deanship.

"He was hardly two weeks in his new position and the protests broke out," she said. "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."

The vitriolic nature of the students and their do-or-die attitude vandalised his soul and unravelled him.
Ncumisa Mayosi

Mayosi's widow Prof Nonhlanhla Khumalo wrote a letter to her late husband, which was read out at the memorial by her friend, Khanyisa Vokwana.

It said: "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."

His sister said that while on sick leave, he confided to their mother that he felt an increasing sense of "isolation from his colleagues" and a lack of support from the university and faculty.

The panel found that Mayosi had been hurt that some of his colleagues had instigated the destructive actions of the students, while other faculty members had isolated him after the initial support he showed for the students in the early days of the protests.

The “level of distress Professor Mayosi experienced is captured in his own handwritten notes” shared with the panel in which he stated that he was “deeply affected by the trauma of the period”.

The panel found that “hostile reactions” were directed at him as dean by “some members of management, students and academic staff alike”, leading Mayosi to “increasingly feel a sense of isolation”.

His mental health suffered as a result of the pressure on him from all directions, but “what struck the panel was the time that it took for Professor Mayosi’s mental health struggles to reach those in authority”.

Ultimately, the panel found, he was “not granted a chance to settle down to try out the plans for the faculty that he had so enthusiastically envisioned during his sabbatical”.

'The last item on his computer screen'

Also of major concern was the fact that Mayosi, after expressing the burden the deanship had placed on him, had been offered redeployment to a role that would have played to his strengths and alleviated the burden that was placed on him. However, this had not come to fruition, despite every expectation that it would.

The report states that Mayosi was to “steer a substantial research project into diseases of poverty, which would cut across disciplines and state borders”.

The panel said the concept “played to Professor Mayosi’s strengths as a scholar of high academic and research profile nationally, continentally and globally”.

Vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng “spearheaded the effort, consulting widely within and outside UCT before broaching the subject to Professor Mayosi”. 

From the accounts of interviewees, “the plan unravelled” when a faculty board meeting was called to announce Mayosi’s new role, but the “VC did not make the expected announcement” after being advised that the necessary preparatory work had not been done.

“There were persistent reports that he was expected to assume the new post in a matter of days, and there is testimony that he was preoccupied with this issue, which finds some corroboration in the fact that it was the last item on his computer screen before he took his life,” said the panel.

“Given these circumstances, and the fact that there is no evidence that any of the behind-the-scenes detail was ever properly explained to him personally, the about-turn in announcing his appointment must have been devastating.”


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