Cape Town narrowly escaped germ 'catastrophe' in 2016, Mayosi report reveals

29 June 2020 - 06:15 By Tanya Farber
A banner on the health sciences building at the University of Cape Town in September 2016 renames the dean’s suite after Hamilton Naki, a black laboratory assistant to cardiac surgeon Chris Barnard. The banner was hung amid a FeesMustFall occupation of the dean’s office.
A banner on the health sciences building at the University of Cape Town in September 2016 renames the dean’s suite after Hamilton Naki, a black laboratory assistant to cardiac surgeon Chris Barnard. The banner was hung amid a FeesMustFall occupation of the dean’s office.
Image: David Harrison

A potential infectious disease “catastrophe” was narrowly averted at the University of Cape Town during the 2016 Fees Must Fall protests.

The incident happened when students tried to break into laboratories at the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine, according to a panel which investigated events leading to the suicide of dean of health sciences Prof Bongani Mayosi two years later.

News of the near-disaster has not emerged until now, and the head of the panel that investigated the Mayosi affair said it was information he and his three colleagues could not ignore.

“When it featured in the narratives of some of the people who worked in that environment, we felt it was important enough for us to bring it to the university’s attention,” Prof Thandabantu Nhlapo told TimesLIVE.

Prof Bongani Mayosi, dean of the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town, committed suicide in July 2018.
Prof Bongani Mayosi, dean of the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town, committed suicide in July 2018.
Image: UCT

The panel’s 157-page report, published last week after being accepted by the UCT council, said: “In addition to defects in crisis management communication, the student protests also revealed poor overall crisis readiness at UCT in respect of laboratories and other repositories of hazardous or sensitive materials.

“It appears to have been due more to luck than to planning that the skirmish outside the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine with students who wanted to break into the laboratories did not end in a catastrophe which could have had devastating implications for not only the university community, but for wider Cape Town.”

Regarding the nature of the hazardous materials to which the report refers, Nhlapo said: “It is common knowledge that research in an institute of infectious and communicable diseases would include samples of such, but since this was not our point of interest we did not ask the witnesses to give such a list.

“The issue of security of buildings or laboratories was never an essential part of our mandate, hence it was not even in our standard questions to the people we interviewed. We did not even pursue it in the same manner that we did the core aspects of the Mayosi inquiry.”

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the university could not say on the institute’s safety and security while the university executive was looking into the panel’s recommendations.

He said the UCT council had “tasked the UCT executive with putting a framework in place to implement the recommendations, which the executive will begin immediately” and “the UCT community continues to heal from the loss of a highly respected scholar and to pay tribute to his legacy”.

Mayosi committed suicide in July 2018, and the panel concluded that #FeesMustFall protests were the “single most influential factor directly and indirectly affecting his deanship”.

In more than 40 interviews, it also probed faculty dynamics, Mayosi’s attempts at resignation and redeployment, how the university handled the news of his death, as well as UCT’s institutional culture and its affect on black staff.

In one of 18 findings, it said the student protests had sometimes been “confrontational” and they had a “deeply traumatising and polarising affect” on staff and students.

It also found that Mayosi maintained “on the whole a good relationship with students in his faculty despite the difficulties and acrimony”, but that there was evidence of “an incredible amount of disrespect” from certain students — both in “face-to-face encounters” and in “numerous electronic communications with him”.


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