Dear Professor Phakeng, you owe students an apology

Like many former students — particularly those who have been intimately involved in the internal politics of the University of Cape Town (UCT) — I have been following the rise of vice chancellor (VC) Mamokgethi Phakeng with fierce interest.

What kind of VC would she be, I and many others wondered. Would she be more progressive than Max Price given her positionality? Should we trust her? Or would she pull something like Mamphela Ramphele did with outsourcing?

Many of us were deeply sceptical. After all, we had not heard much from her during her time as deputy vice chancellor. She seemed almost purposely apolitical on most matters during #FeesMustFall, some thought tactically so.

But the larger sentiment was one of hope. Here was an opportunity for a new energy at UCT in the form of a charismatic, unapologetic and determined VC who represented so much to black people in academia. There were a number of people literally praying for Phakeng, asking God and the ancestors to protect her, knowing just how ruthless and unrelenting the establishment at UCT, and society, can be towards black women in power. The passing of Professor Bongani Mayosi was a tragic incident to the entire university community and South Africa as a whole. It was a shock to all of us, but the students involved in the protest action since 2015 felt the pain quite personally.

Many of us knew him as one of the few academics who made an effort to engage with the protestors and support them. He personally took a stand to condemn the militarisation of our campus in 2017 — at a time when it was not popular to do so. He was kind, brilliant and particularly courageous, rare for an academic these days. His loss will be felt for years to come.

The way in which Professor Mayosi died struck a personal chord with many. Suicide, depression and death brings to the fore traumatic memories — of student suicides, breakdowns and the inability to cope in a space that for many people, is often othering.

This was partly why the movement for #RhodesMustFall even began. And many, rightfully or wrongly, still sincerely hold that UCT is a place associated with the mental, physical and metaphysical death of black people.

This past week has not been easy on students: it has opened festering wounds and rehashed unresolved conversations.And then we were blindsided when it became apparent that Phakeng blamed us for Mayosi’s death. We were shook. The very person we had been silently rooting for was telling the media she believed students were responsible for Mayosi’s depression and subsequent suicide.

I refused to believe it at first, thinking it was a misrepresentation or the sensationalising of Phakeng’s words. Which educator would lay the death of a man students deeply respected at the feet of his wards? Students who themselves are still suffering from trauma and mental health issues as a result of the violence meted out during #FeesMustFall.

Upon listening to the media presser and her follow up statements however, it became clear Phakeng believes Mayosi’s death is the fault of students. She insisted that students calling Prof Mayosi a sellout and coconut during 2016 was the catalyst for his eventual suicide.

In her Cape Talk interview she revised her wording, after spirited online backlash. This time she made the less horrendous claim that she believed the entirety of UCT — not just students — were complicit in Mayosi’s death.

She even listed all people she believed were at fault, including her predecessor Max Price, for rejecting Mayosi’s resignation. Although the interview gave a greater sense of where she was coming from, the damage has already been done.

But I hope Phakeng will engage on some points which I believe are crucial for her to hear.

  1. It is important that she apologise to students for what she said. Irrespective of intent, the earlier interviews made it quite clear that she believed students were shirking the reality that they are the primary cause for Mayosi depression and death. Some students are agonising over whether they are responsible for the death of someone they cared about. Not only is this unwarranted, but they really do not deserve that.
  2. It is necessary to reflect on her valid comments that protest spaces often became abusive to people. It has become apparent at university spaces and online platforms that the manner in which we engage with one another can often be quite cruel. Students themselves have been the recipients and perpetrators, of such abuse even amongst themselves. She cannot however, couch this sound commentary within accusations of students being the catalysts for the loss of a life, literally days after Mayosi’s death. That is not an invitation for reflection how to conduct ourselves during this time, it is emotional blackmail.
  3. Generally speaking the public misunderstands mental health, especially depression and suicide. As VC of UCT, I believe Prof Phakeng largely misrepresented depression and mental illness. In her interviews she has tended to frame depression and suicide as a result of neglect, apathy, stress and a lack of attentiveness on the part of people. I believe this was done out of a desire to argue for more inclusive, open communities. But while a kinder environment is no doubt conducive to mental health, it is misleading to characterise depression and suicide, as simply resulting from the absence of this. It gives the impression that mental illness is simply a social illness, when it is vastly more complex than that.

As Professor Lizette Rabe noted in her open letter to UCT students, suicide as a result of depression is not a choice made because of a rational view on bleak circumstances. It is a disease that inhibits the neurological receptors that allow us to feel joy, contentment, excitement and vitality. It is something that can effectively take away a person’s agency to live their life as they wish.

It is for this reason that even those with the most supportive, nurturing, successful and accomplished lives can fall victim to the disease. The idea that there is “complicity” or “blame” that ought to be passed around for this tragedy is misguided. It erases the fact that there are many that did everything they could for loved ones and still lost them to the disease.

Stress and trauma are indeed triggers for mental illness, but the ways these influence and contribute towards depression does not necessarily have a linear relationship. To speculate on the factors which contributed to Mayosi’s death — student protests, work pressure, personal problems, institutional racism or some combination of these — may allow us to reflect the harms in our world, but they’re also just that: speculation.

In doing this we need to be careful of oversimplifying what depression is: a complex disease impacted by genes, environment, chemical imbalances in the brain, stressors, trauma and context. It is misleading to casually represent suicide as causal series of events culminating in a tragic decision.

For the sake of people suffering from mental illness, we need to do better than this.It is really important that as VC, Phakeng speaks from an informed position on mental health when making public utterances — because she is an academic and holds a leadership position. Phakeng has already acknowledged that Professor Mayosi’s passing is an opportunity for UCT to reflect. I think if anything the most sensible thing for us to reflect on is the reality of mental illness in the higher education sector, and how dangerous it is.

During Phakeng’s time, I sincerely hope UCT becomes a healthier place for students, academics, staff and workers. I hope that this forms part of the ongoing conversation and reflection period and that the sentiments I have expressed in relation to Prof Phakeng are understood to come from a place of solidarity and kindness.

Mohammed Jameel Abdulla, a postgraduate at UCT is a journalist and someone who sincerely wishes the best for the Vice Chancellor at the University of Cape Town.

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