Opinionista Clive W Kronenberg 6 August 2018

What is the state of academia in South Africa today?

The premature and heartbreaking death of a globally accomplished scientist brings an opportune moment for real, meaningful contemplation, as well as curative action, albeit in the scholarly domain.

The sudden and tragic death of Professor Bongani Mayosi, dean of UCT ’s health sciences faculty, has stunned South Africa’s scholarly community and we extend sincere sympathies to his bereaved family, friends and close colleagues and associates.

This sorrowful demise has, however, not been in vain. It has brought a ray of hope, in the sense that it has been a catalyst for opening up discussions around sensitive topics rarely mooted in the public domain. Questions around mental illness, depression, and suicide, particularly, have dominated national discourse, with social media and Twitter specifically conveying a number of courageous testimonies concerning these deeply debilitating afflictions.

Whereas expert opinion has been useful, and often steered public discussion, there now also exists some measure of uncertainty, regrettably. Is mental illness – broadly defined – necessarily the cause of suicide? Put another way, and more importantly, is the unfortunate victim of suicide inevitably a casualty of mental illness?

When the 2008 global economic meltdown literally brought mayhem and unending trepidation into the lives of millions of ordinary working people the world over there was a notable surge in incidents of suicide, especially on the part of individuals facing prospects of losing their homes, for instance. Many schoolchildren unable to meet certain expectations have taken their own lives, on account of unbearable shame and disappointment. Betrayal on the part of a once loving and devoted partner, lover, husband or wife similarly has played a role in individuals reaching that “point of no return”. Did these “casualties of life” all suffer from some or other form of “mental illness”?

The point being, the impression has been created in the public domain that victims of suicide are also or inevitably martyrs of mental sickness, when quite clearly external factors could and quite often do play a decisive role in such horribly tragic events.

UCT’s vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng has raised the question of post-traumatic distress and listed some peripheral elements that may have violated and contaminated the well-being of an otherwise brilliant mind. If this carries any weight then every single institution of higher learning is compelled to engage in some or other form of honest introspection, and collectively ask: what is the state of the academia in South Africa today?

Even though students’ often unkind words and drastic actions call for serious engagement, it is by far no longer purely fees-must-fall, the issue of decolonised higher education, or just general student discontent causing turmoil and disruption in lives of university staff.

Lamentably, the last three to five years have seen a shocking rise in claims of institutional ineptness, corruption and abuse, with complaining staff often subjected to further maltreatment. In other words, it is by no means certain that we have seen the end of suicide among university staff. Readers interested in the sordid experiences of academics need only consult past and current editions of Daily Higher Education News (DHEN), which are freely available online, barring some small data costs.

The way many academics have been and are still treated by this country’s institutional officialdom is truly shocking and deplorable, forming the main topic of scrutiny of a soon-to-be published research study.

The premature and heart-breaking death of a globally accomplished scientist brings an opportune moment for real, meaningful contemplation, as well as curative action, albeit in the scholarly domain. And the role, purpose and task of the South African Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, led by MPL Cornelia September, has never been more pertinent. DM

Clive W Kronenberg is an NRF-Accredited Research Scholar and Lead Co-ordinator of the South-South Educational Collaboration & Knowledge Interchange Initiative

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