In my inaugural professorial address at the University of Cape Town (UCT) a few years ago, in which I discussed the problem of transgenerational trauma and how it plays out in various forms of violence, I emphasised that I was not only referring to violence of the physical kind — the kind that hurts, tortures and destroys the physical body.
By confining the meaning of violence only to those acts that have physical consequences, I argued, we overlook some of the most destructive acts of violence to the human soul perpetrated by people we encounter in the everyday corridors of our environment throughout the institutional contexts in which we spend most of our waking lives.
These are the subtle and not-so-subtle systematic acts of violence aimed at undermining the dignity and sense of worth of others—the insidious acts of violence that so often make people feel that their sense of identity is threatened and that destroy the psychological and spiritual integrity of others.
The death of Professor Bongani Mayosi, and all the debates that have unfolded in the aftermath of his death about the “institutional culture” of UCT, reminded me of this lecture. “Suicide” and a disintegration of self comes in many forms. The attack on many sides and the lack of support in the face of exquisitely painful helplessness may not always lead to giving up on life but rather to the dampening of the human spirit and the slowing down of one’s sense of drive.
Suicide deaths tend to lead to calls for greater “mental health” resources. In the case of the loss of Mayosi’s life, several articles published on various news platforms reminded us of the neurobiological relationship between depression and suicide. Although these scientific facts are important, to confine reflection on these examples of tragic loss of life only to the biological aspects of depression obscures how intolerable conditions surrounding one’s life — the toxic precipitating factors in one’s environment — may unleash an emotional turmoil and lead to depressive despair.
In the wake of multiple suicide deaths in our institutions, along with advocating that people “call for help”, we should also advocate for caring institutions, greater human decency and less desire to humiliate and dehumanise others in our interpersonal relationships.
People create institutional cultures. It is individuals and groups of people who — for whatever reason — behave in a manner that infuses their institutions with the kind of atmosphere that does violence to the identity and integrity of others.
I think this is the perspective that UCT should take in its inquiry into the circumstances that transformed Mayosi from a vibrant, passionate, engaged and inspired professor into a state of emotional agony that was captured so painfully at his funeral by his sister, advocate Ncumisa Mayosi, and his wife, Professor Nonhlanhla Mayosi.
But such an approach requires honesty, integrity and taking a risk to expose problems that have been glossed over for far too long. Some of our institutions — from higher education to schools, churches and the corporate sector — struggle with transformation in part because people identified to manage and lead the change process lack the skills to listen to others about their experiences of suffering.
But there are also those who might actively resist transformation plans, perhaps out of fear, to protect the institutional patterns that they know. Confronting what is wrong and taking action to change it requires not only appropriate policies and new values to be embraced. It requires inner work and therefore should begin with the transformation of individuals.
The key is to create opportunities for people to expand their moral imagination and to engage with difficult issues in a spirit of co-operation and ethical connection with others, instead of with fear and suspicion.
When I was at UCT, confronted with a complicated set of feelings about my experiences that made my mother urge me to leave the university, I wrote a letter with the following excerpt to one of the people in management: “My experiences of the ‘performance’ of power in my department and in the faculty has left me flabbergasted—just shocked by what seems to me to be a level of utter impunity in the way that people flaunt their power. One of the challenges that I think we face is how best to consider transformation in other than just race or gender terms. The people in positions of power who continue to abuse their power with impunity know and expect that no one will challenge and expose them. Many colleagues are bullied by people who abuse their positions simply because they can. And this, I think, is what should change.”
After providing some context, citing my and others’ experiences whose stories I knew intimately, I ended my letter as follows:“I really think that the time has come for UCT to consider holding hearings, including public hearings where people feel comfortable with this, about all the very subtle ways in which people in positions of power try to dampen the spirits of hard-working colleagues in the faculty.
“I could leave UCT and try to get an appointment at another institution but this will change nothing. In the end, I will just be one of those who ‘decided’ to leave, as the story now goes about colleagues who left UCT recently. Besides, I suspect that, ultimately, this is an underlying goal, to make me leave.”
Dr Mamphela Ramphele gave me tremendous support that sustained me at the time. I can say without exaggeration that her active support and creative intervention saved me. I share this story not to be sensational—far from it. I wrote the letter in 2009 and it was a culmination of several attempts at dialogue over a period of at least two years.
Here is a brief excerpt from one email correspondence during this period: “I have always sought to resolve matters amicably to the best of my ability … with a desire for dialogue about difficult issues in the department.”
Our hopes and dreams for transformation in our institutions should be refreshed with these kinds of reminders that there is still work to be done. The goal is to invite honest reflection by people who are concerned about restoring the soul of our democracy.
Evoking Solomon Mahlangu, who on his way to be hanged for his actions as a soldier of the ANC’s Umkhonto weSizwe, said that his blood would water the tree of freedom, Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi referred to Mayosi’s death as an event that should “water the tree of transformation in our institutions of higher learning”. To what extent does this metaphor — or the death of Mayosi — help us to get a grip of the complex realities that we face with the challenge of transformation in higher education?
If we want UCT to do an honest inquiry into the subtleties of institutional violence, would intellectual honesty force us to require that the university investigate equally the actions of the #FeesMustFall students whose humiliating and dehumanising treatment of Mayosi is implicated in the onset of his distress?
In an interview recently, the UCT vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgeti Phakeng, reminded us that the struggle for social justice and change should be to destroy systems of oppression, “not to destroy people”.
I think she was right to call for students to apologise for their humiliation of Mayosi, which, according to his sister Ncumisa Mayosi, “cut him to the core”.
The students will also need support for this process, for the sake of their own healing. The quest for transformation is often imbued with a sense of urgency, with little or no tolerance for compromise, because of the structural factors and deep inequalities that keep the majority of South Africans on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.
Ultimately, not just students should apologise. All of us who are in one way or another implicated should use this moment as an opportunity for reflection. We owe Bongani and his family a great deal. His death should inspire a new consciousness about the importance of creating conditions that may foster caring communities within our institutions.
I am not advocating a “love one another” policy here —although love does have a lot to do with it. Human decency and a higher level of empathy should guide our institutions. There should be a line between behaviour that can be tolerated, on the one hand, and what is beyond the pale on the other. Language that dehumanises others crosses the line of human dignity. It destroys the integrity of others in the same way that racism and homophobia diminish one’s sense of dignity.
Our institutions of higher learning cannot prosper under conditions of perpetual confrontation, or continuing resistance to change. The way out of this crisis is to strengthen unity among people who play different roles in order to bring about change. I hope that the UCT investigation into the conditions that led to Professor Mayosi’s distress and subsequent depressive despair will yield recommendations that will contribute meaningfully to ongoing debates about transformation in our institutions.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is research chair for historical trauma and transformation at Stellenbosch University