Questions surrounding the role of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in the death of Professor Bongani Mayosi may appear unnecessarily dramatic until you understand the perilous environment in which black academics operate in South Africa. It is after all not the first time the passing of an academic has prompted such scrutiny.
A similar question was asked by Professor Jonathan Jansen following the death of Professor Russel Botman who was still serving as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Stellenbosch at the time of his death, just over four years ago.
Jansen wrote, then, movingly: “When the first black vice-chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch died suddenly last weekend, the question commonly asked by academics across the country was: “Who killed Russel Botman?”
Others, including senior black colleagues at this century-old university, were more direct: “They [white people of Stellenbosch] killed him.”
Jansen went on to qualify this “more direct” response asserted by some academics. He said, “Those who do not read the Afrikaans papers would be blissfully unaware of the role of gossip, rumour, insult, intimidation, sidelining and sheer slander this gentle theologian had to bear for the past few years.
“The more he pushed for transformation, the more he was mercilessly vilified by right-wing alumni, aided and abetted by the Afrikaans press, in blogger postings, in alumni associations, and in formal gatherings of the institution.”
The moment I heard of Mayosi’s death my mind went straight back to this piece by Jonathan Jansen. I wondered if academia in South Africa has become a deathtrap for committed trailblazing black academics. These academics build their careers in an environment that still frowns upon black success.
Once it became clear that Mayosi had taken his own life after suffering severe depression in the past two years, the rumour mill went into overdrive. We can never know the true facts but this does give a moment for us to talk about the plight of academics in general and black academics in particular.
Mayosi should be celebrated for his work, for the accolades he gathered, and the research breakthroughs he achieved. He was a leader in his field and he handled himself with humility and grace. His death has opened a flurry of conversation about the plight of depression and its stigmatisation among black people.
Thus, even in his death Mayosi has continued to be a force of moving society, teaching, forcing us to reflect and allowing us to own up to our inefficiencies and vulnerabilities as a society.
The greatest task for us in higher education is to confront the elephant in the room – the uncaring and untransformed nature of our institutions. The universities in South Africa are in serious need of an unburdening process, to open up space for frank conversations on how to turnaround conditions in these institutions.
The recently appointed Vice-Chancellor UCT, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, has come out to categorically state that “all of us at UCT failed him [Mayosi]”. This was in an interview on Cape Talk with Koketso Sachane.
She went on to detail that she has come to learn that a number of academics at UCT have had heart attacks, some are on all sort of pills and others are divorcing because they have changed. Phakeng herself admitted that she now walks around with anxiety tablets in her bag. Apparently she used to take these daily during the recruitment process for the current post she holds.
Of course some racist and anti-black forces at UCT had even questioned her academic credentials and the authenticity of her qualifications, all in an effort to discredit her and render her unworthy to ascend to the vice-chancellor position. UCT and many other spaces are still no places for black academics with agency and voice. To survive easily in these institutions you must be reticent, “see no evil and hear no evil” and pretend that you are happy while you die a slow gentle death inside.
What caught my attention the most is the revelation that Mayosi attempted to resign from his position as Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences not once but twice: first at the end of 2016 academic year and secondly on the November 3 2017.
The university management refused Mayosi’s attempts to resign even though at the start of 2017 he had been off work for three months due to depression. In that moment the university should have done more for Mayosi, if indeed he was this treasured star they claim he was to them.
Administrative leadership in our institutions of higher learning is burdensome. Very few people actually aspire towards it, especially among black academics. Those that go into it do so because they have been convinced enough that “someone needs to put up their hand to change the system”. Often these words mean becoming the sacrificial lamb in pursuit of transformation — perhaps this is what Mayosi became.
Phakeng suggests Mayosi’s resignations were refused because it would not look good to have a black dean resign. No surprise here. Whiteness appreciates “good blacks” that help it sugarcoat its inadequacies and failures.
Black professionals are numbers for affirmative action scorecards and not human beings; hence even with severe depression UCT felt it needed Mayosi for its image and “prestige” at the expense of his health. Mayosi had to endure these disgraceful institutional logics.
What I find discomforting in Phakeng’s tracing of Mayosi’s trials and travails is tracing matters squarely to the “time of conflict” she refers to between 2015 and 2017. This is the moment wherein our universities were gripped by massive protests from students seeking decolonisation of universities and the working class seeking improvement to their working conditions and insourcing. Many deep dark things happened during this period and indeed people like Mayosi were at the heart of the crossfire. He decided to play a more active role, marshalling the faculty of health sciences to be on the side of students and even joining them during the protests.
Even though some students may have called him a coconut and a sellout, this did not stop him from siding with the injustice of institutional racism, patriarchy and discrimination felt majorly by black students. Mayosi must have understood well the plight of students.
By siding with the downtrodden in an institution of privilege, pomp and ceremony such as UCT, Mayosi was always going to suffer institutional backlash from colleagues that believed students were misbehaving and denigrating the good name of UCT.
That Mayosi was a leading cardiologist and clinician and therefore could be making rational decisions to highlight the plight of students in a positive manner would not matter to his colleagues. White privilege — at its most vile and punishing mode — cares not for the credentials of the black person seen as a transgressor.
All black people are the same deserving equal treatment. No doubt, for siding with students Mayosi earned himself equal disdain and disrespect as that which was meted out against students yet to earn an undergraduate degree. He must have been infantilised by some of his colleagues hell-bent at refusing that UCT should be decolonised.
Indeed Phakeng revealed that some colleagues would call Mayosi “incompetent and throwing them under the bus”. This is because many senior leaders in universities never got and still do not get the necessity for decolonisation of our public higher education institutions.
The protests have not died because change has happened, people have simply retreated out of need for some normalcy in their lives. It may not be too long from now before the next phase of protests.
However, to begin at 2015-2017 is to misdiagnose the beginning of institutional trauma experienced by Mayosi.
This can be seen on a social media post by one Joseph Raimondo who said, “In a medical tutorial with him [Mayosi] in 2004, I’m embarrassed to admit that his blackness initially made me doubt his ability. During the tutorial though, he quickly blew me away with his insight, knowledge and clinical acumen”. It is this kind of institutional racism that killed Mayosi.
In a medical tutorial with him in 2004, I’m embarrassed to admit that his blackness initially made me doubt his ability. During the tutorial though, he quickly blew me away with his insight, knowledge and clinical acumen.
— Joseph Raimondo (@JosephRaimondo) July 28, 2018
It is this situation where a black academic, no matter how accomplished must continue to prove themselves to whiteness at every moment of encounter.
In 2004 Mayosi had been elected to the fellowship of the European Society of Cardiology and he had just completed his DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2003. Yet, here was a minion white student doubting his credentials and knowledge simply because he was black.
I have no doubt there are many others, senior academics, that made Mayosi feel that his brilliance and accomplishments were nothing but a fluke propelled by his collaboration with other scholars. I am certain that even in his death, some still doubt Mayosi’s brilliance. Such is the existential battle of black professionals in this country facing emboldened, enduring and resistant institutional racism.
When the decolonisation student movement said “we cannot breathe” referring to the oppressive and suffocating institutional cultures of many of our universities, what was not said is that black academics are worse off, suffocating while trying to eke out new life.
Many more will die of depression, heart failure, stress and many other chronic illnesses for enduring disastrous environments that appear rosy to the unsuspecting public.
In honour of Bongani Mayosi, a human being of outstanding intelligence and humility, black academics must find their voice and speak out in order for us to change the face, texture and substance of the South African academy.
Ulale ngoxolo Radebe,