The death of Professor Bongani Mayosi, the leading cardiologist at the University of Cape Town,lays bare the barbarity and violence inflicted at universities on their victims, which leaves them with no option but death.
Speaker after speaker at the funeral vouched for the giant the man was; a great family man and a meticulous scholar. Some described him as an illustrious but humanitarian intellectual. Countless people might have never met him in person but he has left a legacy that will speak loudly in his eternal silence:a legion of articles that will sharpen generations to come.
He started his university education at the age of 15 when black children were a rarity in institutions such as the University of Natal. Few would guess that he would leave this world at the young age of 51. But black Africans such as Mayosi, who defied apartheid logic so capably, rarely live long. They are always thrown into the deep end and over the cliffs of the colonial matrices of power.
We might never know how and why he died but it would be ghastly if he did so because of the fight against the lingering injustices of colonial apartheid.
What we know clearly is that colonialism was and still is a death project. It sets its victims against each other, makes them attack each other. When this happens it perpetuates itself. As a rehumanising project, trying to decolonise such sites is a heavy burden. The lives of those who are in the thick of the struggle for decolonisation have to be safeguarded.
We have to robustly discuss and debate how to overhaul colonial education and its epistemic bondages, but destructive character assassinations and personal attacks have to be avoided.
There are an increasing number of controversial deaths in universities, of both staff and students.
The reality is that stress levels and anger inside universities are escalating because of toxic and alienating institutional cultures.
Demands for decolonisation have elicited character assassinations and personal attacks.At the leadership level of universities, management is still killing collegiality and academic citizenship. Trust between staff and students is at its lowest. Trust between staff and leadership is tenuous. Leadership is fragmented as people compete against each other rather than working closely for transformation. It’s a strange world,an unenviable environment that shatters dreams and hopes for the future.
At the academic and intellectual level, critical thinking and love of ideas is attacked as careerism. In academic debates and discourse, shouting is deemed radicalism. Reading as a mode of gaining knowledge is in crisis. Books are judged and critiqued by mere looking at covers.
Something has to be done because self-governance is being eroded and captured by capitalist corporate cultures.
Yes, the legitimacy of the university as an institution is fast eroding. Yes, we face an epistemic and systemic crisis. Decolonialism is caricatured and dismissed by those less academically and intellectually endowed. Consequently, less value is added to this important debate,because mere professional jealousy is elevated to a discourse and a critique.
Academic barbarity starts when we are more obsessed with trivial competition and obsessions about the ranking of institutions, for example.
All of us need to cogitate warily, because we are not looking for quick fixes and mere tinkering with our system of education. Yet meaningful transformation should not be waylaid, it should never deteriorate into psychological skirmishes that seek to demean and deride. The price is too immense.
The paradoxes and sadness of Mayosi’s death should bring us more sagacity. Decolonisation should unmask falsities and enable us to see the truths. The first lesson we need to learn is that it shifted the focus of the battle against decolonisation, as people haggled over the sudden death of this giant academic.
Some saw the battle between the vice-chancellor and the student movement. Others saw battles between sympathisers and the students. But what remained hidden were the real challenges that people were supposed to uncover —the mammoth struggle against the ills of colonialism. In the process of finger-pointing we forgot the real fight.
Our universities cannot continue to perpetuate this violence. Mayosi fought for his community and, as his research showed, he ignited epistemological curiosity. Mayosi was killed by a violent culture that refuses to listen, he was killed because he wanted to promote an atmosphere of dialogue, because meticulous leaders are dialectical by nature.
Mayosi is now gone. Perhaps he felt frustrated by mummified dialogues. Yet debates about liberating education will continue.
The struggle to halt academic barbarism will not be suffocated and the focus on a decolonised institution will continue. The truth should always prevail and it should touch our consciences. It should unmask the falsities of colonialism and bring to the fore the real issues we need to resolve.
So we hail the life of Mayosi, a life well lived, probably killed by a hand that sought to nullify debates. We need tobe building academic citizens who do not fear differences, citizens who build epistemologies that do not end life but breathe life as they destroy the last vestiges of colonialism.
Sabelo J Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Vuyisile Msila are directors at Unisa’s change management unit. These are their own views