Myth and Reality at UCT: The Mayosi Affair

 Part 2 – The Mayosi Affair – abusing and unravelling a man, vandalising his soul and cutting him to the core (Read part 1 here) This is the second of three narratives that chronicle damaging ‘Affairs’ involving ‘bullying’ during UCT’s Fallist-era. This narrative is largely...

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 Part 2 – The Mayosi Affair – abusing and unravelling a man, vandalising his soul and cutting him to the core (Read part 1 here)

This is the second of three narratives that chronicle damaging ‘Affairs’ involving ‘bullying’ during UCT’s Fallist-era. This narrative is largely a condensation of the 157-page Executive Summary of the Enquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding Professor Bongani Mayosi’s Tenure: Crucible for Senior Black Academic Staff?.

Bongani Mayosi

Bongani Mayosi Dean/Prof. of UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) was “one of the best examples of black excellence but also as a prominent symbol of transformation at UCT”. “His cutting-edge research, leadership role in various health professional forums in the country and the continent as well as across the world” singled him out as a quintessential 21st Century academic.

Tragically, Mayosi’s suffering and suicide greatly “assisted in magnifying fault lines within the university community”.

The Panel

The Enquiry’s Panel of eminent “external” members included Prof. Thandabantu Nhlapo, Dr Somadoda Fikeni, Prof. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Ms. Nomfundo Walaza. The Panel’s Terms of Reference were “guided by: an early meeting with the Mayosi family; the confidential report of Council’s Ad Hoc Committee; and the statement submitted by the Concerned Staff and UCT Black Academic Caucus group”. The Panel employed a “qualitative research approach” that “involves reflection on questions of institutional transformation, which implicitly implies social justice, broadly speaking”. This strategy “offers an opportunity for engaging with the finer details of subjective experience, capturing a level of depth of understanding in a way that allows for consideration of perceptions, feelings and meanings that the participants in the interviews construct to make sense of their experiences”.

Various “narratives” and “stories” featured strongly in the Panel‘s findings. Participants and interviewees were “allowed a level of flexibility in the structure of their responses according to what was pertinent for them and to raise important issues regarding their experiences”. This strategy gave the Panel “an opportunity to probe deeper and to ask questions that became necessary when an interview took an unanticipated direction”. Moreover, it allowed “captur[ing] nuance – such as in emphasis of voice or body language expressed in emotions or subtle movements at certain points in the interview which may provide context for reflection on, and interpretation of, complex feelings or subtle avoidances that are difficult to articulate, or even to acknowledge”. Last, but not least, Panel members also “drew significantly from their own experiences as South Africans”.

Investigatory dangers

Possible dangers of employing a qualitative/narrative-based investigation are that it may be compromised when narratives lack, or conflict with, substantive evidence, placing a “master narrative” in competition with a ‘threatening’ “dominant institutional culture”. A narrative is a personal story or account of a series of related events or experiences. This is in sharp contrast to a testimony – a formal written or spoken evidence-based statement.

At UCT, despite evidence-based research (see here and here) to the contrary, the current master narrative is that its culture is “entrenched” with systemic racism founded in a “divisive legacy of colonialism” that needs to be “erased”. It is allegedly based on “unspoken rules that shape habits, patterns of thinking, stereotypes, behaviours and styles of communication”. It is “pervasive and impactful”, although “often intangible, subconscious and difficult to measure”. In short, UCT may be “appropriating the language of change without actually changing” and “invoking institutional autonomy and academic freedom … to protect and maintain the insularity of the dominant culture”.

In the end, the Panel was “satisfied that things happened as described or that information supplied represents a genuine feeling, recollection, perception or opinion of the party or parties concerned”. “It was not material to establish the absolute truth.” “The mere existence of several differing perceptions and understandings of the same set of facts was itself an important indicator of the dynamics at play within UCT society.”

Findings

The Enquiry’s Report reveals lots of ‘bullying’ and worse, but tends to steer clear from apportioning blame to individuals or ‘groups’. Some of the Panel’s findings were confidential and were released only to the Mayosi family. There has been no recent response from members thereof in the public domain. However, before the Panel began its work, Mayosi’s sister, Ncumisa, made the family’s position crystal clear:

“He was hardly two weeks in his new position and the protests broke out”. “The vitriolic nature of the students and their do or die attitude vandalised his soul and unravelled him. Their personal insults and abuse cut him to the core, were offensive to his values and were the opposite of everything he was about.”

 Mayosi’s widow, Nonhlanhla Khumalo – also a professor in the FHS – further described the role in his death played by Fallist students:

“During the protests, students sent a list of demands and messages on [his] private cellphone at all hours. [He] cared so deeply for the people who now treated [him] as the enemy.”

UCT VC Mamokgethi Phakeng confirmed that Mayosi was called “coconut” and “sellout”, even though  his intentions were really for the students’ best welfare.

In short, this testimony suggests that Mayosi was ‘bullied’ to death.

An evidence-based ‘Narrative’

Mayosi’s “reluctant” tenure as Dean coincided with the “tension-riddled” period of the Fallist movements’ and student protests. Only a few days after Mayosi assumed duty, disruptive Fallist protests erupted in the FHS, which hitherto had been “largely spared the turbulence that was raging around the university and countrywide”. “Trumpeting” Mayosi as “the first black dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences” also “was not well received within sections of the coloured community” since – depending on who ‘qualifies’ as a ‘black’ – “that the accolade properly belonged to Dr Marian Jacobs”.

The Panel concluded that his “baptism by fire” had a profound impact on Mayosi’s tenure as Dean. When he initially “veered visibly towards sympathy with the students’ cause”, he suffered more criticism/bullying from other ‘sides’. Some faculty colleagues and members of his executive team railed against him “for sometimes going against collective decisions and being perceived as bowing to student pressure” and not “stamping down on the unrest”. Others felt that he should act merely as “a buffer between protesting black students and faculty members” and, in particular, between them and the reactionary UCT anti-transformational ‘hegemony’.

In short, Mayosi “fell foul of the UCT system”, dissatisfied staff and Fallist protesters who derided and humiliated him for “not solving their problems quickly enough”.

The immediate and “relentless” pressure on Mayosi from all sides created stressful circumstances that undermined his work and severely damaged his health. Some Fallist students [self-identified as #OccupyFHS] rapidly escalated the aggressive character [bullying?] of their protests. They occupied his offices and also “targeted the medical library” and “laboratories which contained dangerous chemicals and biological specimens”. The “system” undermined him by “focus[ing] [academic assessments] only on Professor Mayosi’s [alleged] administrative [in]efficiency, especially during a time when his mental health had become an issue”.

In his analysis of the effects of radical Fallism, Prof. Jonathan Jansen describes the Fallist students’ illegitimate “disrespectful” disruption as “fascism” having “no place in a democracy”. The Panel concluded that this “relentless” assault on Mayosi’s position and person was the “single most influential factor directly and indirectly affecting his Deanship”, preventing him from implementing his carefully developed vision for the FHS. Indeed, before launching his Deanship, he had taken sabbatical leave in order to study a management course at the Harvard Business School and visit medical faculties at other institutions abroad to develop a vision and strategy.

He never got the chance to implement them.

The Panel also reported that Mayosi was not only hurt profoundly by the disrespectful and disruptive protests by #OccupyFHS Fallist students’, but also by the fact that  “some of the more disruptive actions were instigated by staff members” – including members of the Black Academic Caucus (BAC). One of these overzealous academics even urged: “I want this university to burn, I want this whole world to burn, burn, burn.”

Some black academics from the Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG – see also here) [and the BAC?] mediated vis-à-vis the students’ occupation of Mayosi’s offices. The mediation appeared to “yield positive early results”. Mayosi was “taken on board”. He agreed – provided that Fallist invaders “evacuated his offices and went back to classes”- to “explore changing current practices to enable a decolonisation” driven by “meaningful discussion” and “continuous and transparent” negotiations. Although the students ceased their occupation, they did not return to class and there were no discussions and negotiations – only more bullying and more demands.

Amidst this chaos, Dean Mayosi was compelled to rapidly make and “hard choices and difficult decisions” supporting – always in an “unswerving collegial manner” – the need for a “rupture” at UCT from Her colonial past. He argued decisively and pivotally for the total removal of Rhodes’ Statue from UCT property; supported and danced along-side Fallist students who marched on Bremner Administrative Building; waived DP requirements; and postponed examinations to help them academically.

These pro-Fallist decisions were met with hostile reactions [more bullying?] by members of FHS management, moderate students and academic staff, exacerbating Mayosi’s sense of isolation. This caused him to take long bouts of sick leave, consult with at least two psychiatrists and – on at least two occasions – attempting to resign as Dean. Sadly, Mayosi may have been persuaded by VC Max Price to withdraw what the medically-trained VC downplayed as “attempted” and “apparent resignations”, by promising an “immediate respite from some management functions” and further significant “mechanisms to ease his burdens”. Still, other interviewees “speculated that Mayosi might have been coerced into withdrawing his resignation”.

In the end, there was no delivery on the VC’s ‘promises’. They bore “little or no fruit” and constitute a ”damaging indictment of insensitivity” by the Price-led Executive towards Mayosi. This brilliant, compassionate and energetic medical researcher and educator – and caring and charismatic human being who displayed a consultative style of leadership and tried to minimize conflict – was castigated by bullies from all sides, including some who had manoeuvred him into assuming his deanship.

The “defining public engagement” that illustrates the “intense and emotionally charged” situation in the FHS was a general assembly in which a task team – established by Mayosi as a consequence of CCWG-mediated agreements – convened to report back to #OccupyFHS vis-à-vis their “demands”. The assembly was quickly taken over by disorderly students. “There were moments of crude engagement, with students heckling staff members and rejecting some responses as inadequate. A member of staff seconded to the deanery, who had been selected to present on behalf of the staff, had an emotional breakdown.”

A spent force

From this point on, Mayosi was unable to lead the FHS and “withdrew into a passive state”. The belaboured Dean “lost his voice and self-confidence and descended into a state of fear”. Interviewees described him as “a man alone, under siege from all directions” “with nowhere to turn.” “We all knew he was sick; it was just so obvious.” His “deteriorating health was in plain sight”. “He felt as if he was alone ‘in a dark room’ with bombs exploding from all sides.” He was a “suffering and struggling individual”. “Family members confirmed to the panel that he had been in excellent mental condition prior to the time he assumed the deanship.”

In short, the Panel “had no hesitation in concluding – from the testimony presented – that the eruption of the #FeesMustFall protests a few days after Professor Mayosi took up his post as Dean was the single most influential factor directly and indirectly affecting his Deanship. He was not granted a chance to settle down to try out the plans for the faculty that he had so enthusiastically envisioned during his sabbatical and immediately upon his return”. “The only conclusion to be drawn” is that Fallist protests “triggered and compounded his emotional decline”.

Denials and counter-claims

In contrast to the Panel’s conclusions are the Thoughts on the death of Professor Bongani Mayosi authored by Mayosi’s fellow FHS Prof. [and BAC member?] Lydia Cairncross, “an activist for free, decolonised education and for equitable, quality health care”:

“[N]one of us will ever really know what happened.”

“The occupation of the Health Sciences deanery in 2016 marks, for me, a transformative moment in our history as a faculty. Seldom have I seen political protest unfold so spontaneously, so respectfully, so democratically, so beautifully as that particular protest did.” My emphasis

I cannot recall an instance where Bongani Mayosi, the man, was disrespected, called names or denigrated in any way, though of course there may have been isolated instances of this. What I rather saw was principled political action to hold accountable the representatives of the structures of power in a flawed system. These struggles could also be viewed as an important social counter pressure assisting a dean, newly in his position, to shift the conservativism of the university towards his stated aims of building an institution that was more just, more open, more home to all of us.”

Despite medical doctor Cairncross’ denials and claims, it would appear that #OccupyFHS, the UCT Executive, CCWG and radical Fallists collectively failed to acknowledge [or care?] that they were dealing with a person who – for all intents and purposes – was “not well and was not able to make rational decisions”. “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.”

The proposal promoted by the then DVC Phakeng [“U-turned” or “toned down” at the last minute by his line manager DVC Lis Lange?] to create a new position for Mayosi under the title of Pro Vice-Chancellor in which he would lead an African Centre of Excellence in Poverty was ‘too little, too late’. The Panel summarizes the effect of the U-turn succinctly: “the about-turn in announcing his appointment must have been devastating”.

Had the Enquiry’s report stopped there, those responsible for rehabilitating and adaptively transforming UCT might have used the report as a springboard towards developing a coherent strategy to ‘heal’ Her.

BUT

Without providing substantive evidence, the Panel outlined further narratives stemming from their confidential discussions with interviewees. These endorse the controversial view that UCT IS “entrenched” with systemic racism founded in a “divisive legacy of colonialism”. More specifically, there is a “marginalisation and alienation [of black members of the community] as a consequence of a dominant institutional culture, which often evolves into a hegemonic system that presents itself as a set of universal and inevitable values, norms and systems”. This culture is “pervasive and impactful” yet it is often intangible, subconscious and difficult to measure” and “very difficult to detect”. Nevertheless, its “impact is unmistakable”, and its overarching ‘unformalized’ culture’ “has an overbearing influence on processes and decision-making”.

No ‘marginalizing’ members of an ‘overbearing hegemony’ or ‘pervasive and alienating culture-structures’ are identified.

More disconcerting is that, although “the demographic profiles of students and senior management have drastically changed [positively] since the 1990s”, “the profile of the academic staff who are at the core of the academic enterprise has hardly changed”. “Institutional autonomy and academic freedom are often invoked to protect and maintain the insularity of the dominant culture”. This has “a negative impact on black [students?], academic leaders and staff members”. The interviewees were “acutely conscious of the manifestations of what they perceive to be alienating and often paternalistic institutional tendencies”. This, in turn, has created “a trust deficit between groups” that “reinforces dominant institutional culture and provides an avenue for resisting genuine transformation”.

The Panel identified still more “areas of concern” vis-à-vis the alleged “dominant institutional culture”. One of these is the “persistent perception that in these formal assessments black staff invariably scored below their white counterparts, and were then offered ‘coaching’ which many experienced as patronizing or, at worst, not honestly intended”.

However, no academic-freedom-protected, dominant paternalists’ are identified, and there is no mention of the scientific research published in 2018 by a UCT-based team – including former VC Price – in their scholarly paperAcademic promotions at a South African university: questions of bias, politics and transformation. It concludes that: “Overall, therefore, we find little quantitative evidence of any consistent pattern of promotion bias [at UCT].”

Another ‘concern’ at the heart of the above-mentioned ‘resistance’ are “deeply entrenched informal networks” which “interact and often influence decision-making processes, operating parallel to formal structures, and sometimes actually feeding into them and even overriding them”. Powerful (privileged?) members of these networks impose “top-down austerity measures” which “led to restructuring and to significant cuts in faculty budgets”. These politically-motivated and selective cuts were necessary “to implement downsizing” … through … “dismantling non-core programmes”. Some interviewees even testified that “they detected a pattern of interference by senior leadership where they were told which programmes should not be affected by restructuring even if those were not core programmes. In the view of these colleagues, such interventions occurred when programmes of white academics were affected and hardly ever when programmes of interest to black academics were targeted”. “During student protests, it became clear that fellow staff members, mainly white, expected black leaders and Professor Mayosi in particular to be a buffer between protesting students and faculty members.”

However, with regard to this ‘resistance’, no “deeply entrenched informal networks” [other than the secretive BAC and controversial CCWG?] or their “politically-motivated”, “powerful [white?] members” of the “senior leadership” – let alone those who supported a ‘black-buffering’ strategy – have ever been identified and exposed.

Other than VC Price, how many of the interviewees were “powerful whites”?

Still more worrying is the Panel’s perception that “identity politics [at UCT is] more complex”, going “beyond simple black and white divisions into several categories, including white South Africans, whites who had come from Zimbabwe (former Rhodesians), black Africans (South African and non-South African), coloureds and Indians”.

As with other damning criticisms of UCT, no substantive evidence favouring the ontological status this institutional demographic partitioning is presented.

Nevertheless, UCT’s past white leaders are portrayed as “trapped in their self-understanding of their liberal credentials, such as the cachet of having opposed apartheid”. These ‘entrapped liberals’ have an “ideology [that has been] the key driver of globalization in the last three decades”. This transformation creates the unjustified impression that UCT is “beyond reproach in respect of apartheid guilt and are part of the dominant mainstream ideology on a global scale”, “positioning them as a benchmark towards which universal norms and best-practice should be drifting. This universalistic pretention undermines any serious effort to transform power relations which alienate a considerable number of black academics especially those who assume positions of leadership”.

In the case of UCT, Her “high ranking in terms of research output and academic quality may also reinforce the thinking that “if it is not broken why fix it?”

Of course, the counter to this is: “Why destroy the village in order to save it.”

Then comes the ‘closer’

“In such circumstances, any [black] person alienated by the exclusionary institutional culture is simply labelled as not living up to the high academic and professional standards of the institution without any due consideration of the possibilities of epistemic injustice that emanates from stifling of plurality of paradigms.” Thus, identifying Fallist students as key players in Mayosi’s demise is “regrettable and overly simplistic”.

This re-enforces the BSC/Fallist attitude and Founding Fallist Chumani Maxwele’s assertions that “the report tends to over-emphasise the ‘rudeness’ of students” and “UCT [should] take full responsibility for the death of dean of health sciences” and that VC Phakeng “had misread the political situation on campus during the protests”. This was because UCT has a “swim-or-sink” ethos within which black students, Mayosi and other black academics are “set up to fail”.

Maxwele summarized the Fallist/BAC reaction to the Panel’s Report:

“We are feeling happy that the students are exonerated by the very report of the university.”

“There is no black professor that can die as a result of being called names.”

UCT must “apologise for accusing them, particularly black students, of contributing to his death while hiding the racists in health sciences”.

But, the Panel was less emphatic: “by their very nature, institutional culture manifestations of this kind are very difficult to detect but their impact is unmistakable”.

Countering Fallist/BAC condemnation, one [e.g. Nicoli Nattrass] might argue that there is a current completely ‘detectable’ Fallist  and BAC practice of defaming to the point of ‘cancelling’ anyone – irrespective of race and gender – who fails to support, questions, let alone challenges their ‘policy’ [e.g. Curriculum Change Working Group‘s Framework] of destructive decolonization.

How to address ‘systemic racism’ at UCT

The Panel’s key recommendation to address this alleged systemic racism which, if “embraced and implemented … will go a long way towards addressing some of the challenges of institutional culture that have alienated many dedicated staff members and students”, is to mount a “Compulsory Immersion Programme in Diversity Sensitivity” to help (white?) staff “to unlearn often subconscious identity-based prejudices and relearn new skills” necessary to “embrace a new worldview on issues of diversity”. The Programme should be “designed and driven by a credible institution or individual, with a proven track record of conducting transformative programmes of this nature which have demonstrated sustainable impact”.

Is this proposed programme the realization of Nattrass’ “Thought Police”? Who/what is a “credible institution or individual”? How will chosen ‘credibles’ test the subconsciously racist, ‘invisibly-networked’ miscreants to ascertain when they have sufficiently ‘unlearned’ their prejudices and are now suitably racially ‘skilled’?

In the meantime, those [unidentified few?] who allegedly drove Dean Mayosi to kill himself may still be driving institutionally destructive processes at UCT. If so, who is their next target.

Read Part 3 to find out whom this proved to be.

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