South Africa

PROFESSOR SUICIDE

Bongani Mayosi faced animosity from students and colleagues, while UCT failed to support him as his health faltered – report

Professor Bongani Mayosi was a widely respected and well-liked scientist. Photo from UCT

The bereaved family of UCT professor Bongani Mayosi – who committed suicide two years ago – say they are considering a report into his death that was released this week. The university has undertaken to immediately implement the report’s recommendations and to pay tribute to his legacy.

At Bongani Mayosi’s funeral two years ago, family asked that “no stone be left unturned” in uncovering the reasons behind the top scholar’s suicide at his home in Pinelands, Cape Town. On Thursday this week, the bereaved Mayosi family acknowledged receipt of the 157-page report into his death.

The professor’s sister, Ncumisa Mayosi, asked that the family’s privacy be respected. “We are considering its contents,” she told Maverick Citizen. “And the ramifications for Professor Mayosi’s legacy; for us as a family, and the broader University of Cape Town and academic communities.” 

Published on the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) website this week, the independent report paints a sombre picture of converging pressures in the days leading up to Mayosi taking his own life. He died aged 51 on 27 July 2018. 

Promoted to health sciences dean at UCT in 2016, Mayosi’s mandate was to supervise some 2,000 academic, administrative and technical staff; 2,015 undergraduate and 1,928 postgraduate medical students.

The report into his death indicates that Mayosi stepped into this new position with enthusiasm. But mere days into his tenure in September 2016, #FeesMustFall student protests erupted at the health sciences faculty. 

While noting animosity from students and colleagues during the protests, the report repeatedly points a finger at UCT for failing to provide adequate support to a top staff member, whose mental wellness was clearly faltering. Ambiguity around a new job within the university is believed to have further devastated a fragile Mayosi days before his suicide. 

The report notes how each day the #FeesMustFall protests grew in intensity, and how students threatened to break into the faculty’s laboratories, which contained dangerous chemicals and biological specimens.

It states: “The defining public engagement that is often mentioned was a general assembly in which a task team established by Professor Mayosi had come to report back on a list of demands that students had submitted. The assembly was described as intense and emotionally charged with the students taking over the running of the meeting. There were moments of crude engagement, with students heckling staff members.”

Those close to Mayosi argue that these events would catalyse a succession of pressures that ultimately broke his heart. Evidence before the panel shows Mayosi trying to resign as dean more than once, following distress caused by both students and colleagues at the coalface of the protests.

The report notes: “The panel was told by those closest to him that he was ‘in a bad place’ and experiencing ‘an increasing sense of isolation’ from colleagues at various levels. In the words of one interviewee, the ‘angry people’ he was terrified of confronting ‘were not the students’, they were close colleagues of his in an environment that had become ‘hostile, abrasive, aggressive and rude’.”

Born in 1967 in Mthatha to father George, a local district surgeon, and mother Nontle, a nurse, Mayosi’s healthcare ambitions would propel him from rural roads to academic corridors around the world. 

Mayosi earned two medical degrees with distinction at UKZN. Fellow medical student Fundile Nyati recalls: “This guy was so good at internal medicine. When he was being examined, there would be a crowd just listening to his answers.We would all bunk lectures, then go to Bongani for notes, because he never bunked. We would want his notes, because we knew they were even better than those of the lecturers.”

Mayosi was admitted to the Fellowship of the College of Physicians of South Africa in 1995, and earned a doctoral degree at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom in 2003. 

A cardiologist focused on heart disease in poor communities, one of his often-repeated lines was: “Poverty breaks hearts.”

The report into his death provides witness accounts of Mayosi’s declining mental health over two years. Examples are given of how the once eloquent academic had become withdrawn, even shaking and developing a stutter – how  he was not honouring important speaking engagements around the world, and was found staring into space or slumped over his desk. On one occasion his wife, Prof Nonhlanhla Khumalo, also at UCT, was called to Mayosi’s office where he had fainted while delivering a paper to a colleague. 

The report notes: “At UCT, what struck the panel was the time that it took for Professor Mayosi’s mental health struggles to reach those in authority. According to members of the family, there were no detectable signs of any psychiatric problems prior to Professor Mayosi’s ascension to the deanship. Many interviewees spoke of specific incidents during which they noted Professor Mayosi’s behaviour as being changed from that of the person they knew. Others were privy to actual episodes of unwellness, detected either at the faculty or on travels abroad. 

“Certainly, the episodes were enough to have Professor Mayosi granted sick leave on two occasions. Noting these reports, the panel struggled to find answers as to why a deterioration that was evident to many people was not reported or arrested in time, either by those close to Professor Mayosi or by officialdom. Even more concerning for the panel is the fact that this lack of awareness led to Professor Mayosi having to operate in an atmosphere where the demands on him were on the basis of ‘business as usual’, while his capacity was impaired.”

On July 4 2018, about three weeks before her husband’s suicide, Khumalo, out of desperation for his well-being, scheduled an appointment with the university’s new vice-chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, who had taken over from VC Max Price just days before.

At the time, Phakeng was spearheading discussions around redeploying Mayosi within the university; to create a position for him as head of a centre of excellence in diseases of poverty. He was open to the idea. The plan was that Mayosi’s new position would be made public at a faculty board meeting on July 23 2018. 

However, at the meeting, Phakeng did not make the announcement. The report notes one of her reasons being a lack in “footwork” done around the announcement. The report further notes that this “U-turn” in his redeployment was never properly explained to Mayosi, who had been left in a state of confusion. Clearly this weighed heavily on his mind, as the last items viewed on his personal computer were documents related to this new position. 

The report states: “There is testimony that he was preoccupied with this issue, which finds some corroboration in the fact that it was the last item on his computer screen before he took his life. Given these circumstances, and the fact that there is no evidence that any of the behind-the-scenes detail was ever properly explained to him personally, the about-turn in announcing his appointment must have been devastating. Indeed, it appears from testimony that Professor Mayosi’s final days were a crucible of converging pressures.”

Furthermore, the report critiques UCT’s communication around Mayosi’s passing. It states as one of its findings: “Communication and management of the passing of Professor Mayosi was impulsive, reactive, defensive and uncoordinated.”

This week, Maverick Citizen’s request to interview Phakeng on the matter was declined. An official UCT statement says the university’s executive would immediately start to implement the report’s recommendations.  

These include subjecting staff “to a deep, and compulsory, immersion programme of diversity sensitivity training… to unlearn often subconscious identity-based prejudices”; balancing university transformation goals against individual staff wellness needs; and developing better conflict-resolution skills.

The report says: “There is a general consensus even though from different standpoints that the protests would not have been as prolonged, nor as vicious at times, had the university’s initial response been more measured and less reactionary. UCT leadership must develop as a matter of urgency

the ability to adopt a proactive, open and non-defensive approach to engagements with students and staff which involve discontent and potential conflict.”

Moreover, Mayosi will be memorialised in scholarships, memorial lectures and in the renaming of buildings: “In this manner Professor Mayosi’s tragic death, which became a symbol of pain and division, could be transformed into a positive memorial to black academic excellence and sustainable transformation.”

This week’s UCT statement concludes that the university’s community “continues to heal from the loss of a highly respected scholar and to pay tribute to his legacy.”

On campus – as part of the Bongani Mayosi Legacy Project – the faculty’s library will henceforth be known as the Bongani Mayosi Health Sciences Library. The legacy project includes an exhibition outside the library, which, among other things, pays homage to “Bonganisms” – the mantras the late professor liked to repeat and live by. These include, “Dare to dream”, “Poverty breaks hearts”, “Your work must speak for itself” and “There is enough space under the African sky”.

In a speech delivered shortly after being appointed head of UCT’s department of medicine in 2006, Mayosi famously referenced the 12th century French philosopher Bernard of Chartres: “I do indeed stand upon the shoulders of giants.”

In turn, at her brother’s memorial service, Ncumisa Mayosi told hundreds of mourners: “My brother was a giant; he was humble and passionate and funny. He had this funny contagious laughter that’s kind of nasal and lingers in the throat. He may have been slightly short, but he was a giant.” MC/DM

 

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