“Toxic” Health Sciences?
On 27 July 2018, Prof. Bongani Mawethu Mayosi, Dean of UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences, loving husband, adoring father, dedicated son, scientist/clinician par excellence, and educator and mentor to generations of students and doctors, committed suicide a few months after falling into a deep depression. At his funeral, his friend, Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi, sang of just some of his praiseworthy achievements: NRF A–rated researcher; Elected Fellow of UCT, elected member of the US National Academy of Medicine; recipient of the Order of Mapungubwe in Silver. “He believed in the potential of black students and he mentored them with passion and love.” “He was a dedicated healer of the oppressed masses”. ‘Synonyms’ of Mayosi are: intellect, excellence, rigour, drive, people skills, infectious enthusiasm, service, wisdom, insight, gentleness and truth. In the 2015 UCT Senate meeting held to decide the fate of Rhodes’ Statue, Mayosi played a, if not THE, pivotal role in ensuring that it could not remain on UCT territory. In 2016, he marched in academic gown, toyi-toyi-dancing in support of Fallists. Based on all these achievements, he was the obvious choice to fill the post of Dean of Health Sciences.
So – who and/or what drove Dean Mayosi into depression and, ultimately, to suicide?
#FeesMustFall protestors and their academic and administrative supporters – Mayosi’s sister, Advocate Ncumisa Mayosi, told more than 2000 mourners of his suffering which began soon after he became Dean:
“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.” Soon after this, while he was on two-month’s enforced psychological sick leave, Dean Mayosi confided to his mother, Nontle Mayosi, that he felt an increasing sense of “isolation from his colleagues” and a “lack of support from the university and faculty”. Mayosi’s wife‚ UCT Prof. Nonhlanhla Khumalo said he “resigned twice” but the UCT Executive persuaded him to hang on. “During the protests, students sent a list of demands and messages to his private cellphone at all hours. People he cared for so deeply now treated him as the enemy.” New UCT Vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng confirmed that his Fallist tormentors called him “a coconut and a sellout” and “he couldn’t deal with it”. Furthermore, Phakeng added: “that’s not to say that that’s [condemnation by Fallists] the only thing that pushed him over the edge”. She corroborated the fact that he had “tendered his resignation to then vice-chancellor Dr Max Price” but was persuaded to remain.
Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of Wits University, concurs: “Student leaders reserved their most severe criticism for black academics who did not deliver what they expected. When you couldn’t deliver, you were called a coconut, a sellout.” Former UFS VC Prof. Jonathan Jansen went one step further vis-à-vis Fallism at UCT: “that kind of disruption has no place in a democracy. Why are we silent in the face of this kind of fascism? I can’t think of a better word (than fascism)”.
The pro-Fallist Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG) added to Mayosi’s burden. However the CCWG’s ‘Framework’ report [which VC Max Price stated ”highlights key pathways to meaningful curriculum change”] did not deliver. Two of its leaders, Prof. Elelwani Ramugondo and Dr Kasturi Behari-Leak, offer a “clear and practical example” of the CCWG group’s achievements – persuading newly appointed Dean Mayosi to capitulate to Fallists’ demands when they occupied his offices for weeks – provided that they resumed attending classes . The protesting Fallist students reneged and did not return to classes.
Another key ‘defendant’ is what eminent Prof. and UCT Fellow Tim Noakes identifies as an amorphous, secretive, “sub-culture within this [Health Sciences] Faculty (and by extension at UCT)”: The Academic Mob (AM). “It appears as a hidden culture of bullying, vindictiveness and envy, driven perhaps by a desire to promote conformity, to suppress freedom of speech and expression, and perhaps also to limit efforts at transformation.” When he became its victim, “the Faculty and the senior management at UCT completely failed me, my wife and my family”. The AM’s nefarious actions against Mayosi and others (including similarly eminent DVC Crain Soudien, former UCT SRC chairperson and MP Gwen Ngwenya, Law Dean Penelope Andrews and philosophy Prof. David Benatar) were also unfettered by a “subdued” UCT Executive.
Now retired (but not retiring) Emeritus Prof. Noakes summarizes the sad situation best: “one feature of the ‘culture’ of this Faculty is an absence of REAL concern for the well-being of its individual members. It’s simply every man and woman for him- and herself. With no unified vision of what constitutes a desirable ‘culture’.” “[U]nless this toxic sub-culture in the Faculty is addressed, the Faculty is likely destined to become progressively more crippled and second-rate”. “Ultimately a toxic culture drives out all the good people. It commits fratricide.” “Under different circumstances [without support from family and others outside UCT] I might have been just another suicide statistic in the dark side of this Faculty’s history.” “To change the culture, one cannot paper over the cracks with lofty words and pronunciations of being a world-class, research-led institution – ‘the best in Africa’.” “One needs a very different approach.” Archbishop Emeritus Njongonkulu Ndungane also linked the depredations of the AM culture to Mayosi when he said: the world sometimes did not accept positive traits like Mayosi’s “wisdom, insight, intelligence, gentleness and truth”. Instead it “embraces hatred, violence, roughness of speech and harsh actions”.
Fallist pre-emptive ‘history’
Despite the unambiguous views expressed by Mayosi’s family/colleagues/friends, the Fallist position (here and here), supported by the Black Academic Caucus (BAC see here, here, here) and also nameless others referred to as Concerned UCT Staff (CUS)‚ is to downplay outrage emanating from this tragedy by asserting:
- there are “many layers and many factors that may have contributed to Professor Mayosi’s untimely death”;
- “none of us will ever really know what happened”; and
- “recent narratives laying blame at the door of only one aspect of these complex facets [Fallism]” “are narrow and divisive”, “premature” “mudslinging”, “not in keeping with the expressed wishes of the Mayosi family”. My emphasis
The UCT Fallist perspective is best presented individually by Dr Lydia Cairncross:
- The occupation of the Health Sciences deanery was “a principled political action”, “a transformative moment in our history as a faculty” and “political protest [that] unfold[ed] so spontaneously, so respectfully, so democratically, so beautifully”.
- It should be viewed as “an important social counter pressure assisting a dean”.
- I “cannot recall an instance where Bongani Mayosi, the man, was disrespected, called names or denigrated in any way”.
- The real causes of Mayosi’s suicide emanate from “the institution of the university” – a “pathological work culture”, “overt and covert racism”, a “capitalist system that makes of our thinking and our students, commodities to be bought, sold and measured”.
- Dean Mayosi was forced to “choose to be on the side of justice, the side of the picket line, or on the side of the institution, the system, the ‘board’ and defend all it stands for.”
Cairncross, the BAC and CUS insisted that there be investigations into Dean Mayosi’s “untimely death” and “this inquiry must be set up in consultation with especially black staff and students‚ who have on various occasions expressed their experiences of being marginalised at UCT”.
A formal Inquiry
On 3 August 2018, more than a year ago, UCT set up inquiry into Dean Mayosi’s suicide. The Inquiry is chaired by Emeritus Law Prof. and former UCT DVC Thandabantu Nhlapo and includes Prof. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who a commented so cogently on the murder of Brian Hahn. To date, no findings have been communicated.
I believe that if those members of the UCT Community (and beyond?) who harassed, defamed and, ultimately, destroyed Prof. Mayosi and those in the UCT Executive who failed to react to his pleas for release from an untenable position are not identified and held accountable for their actions, this will encourage more defamation/harassment/violence/academic mobbing. Worse still, I fear that Fallist extremists may emulate Dr Steve Tladi and commit acts of extreme violence.
If the 2019 Edition of the Health Sciences Students’ Council Sensitisation Booklet, edited by RD Hoekstra (Secretary General – 2018 HSSC) and apparently authored by members of the #OccupyFHS who invaded Mayosi’s offices, is indicative of what’s to come, there may be more “academic mobbing” ahead. Rather than being a guide to all incoming Health Sciences students, it reads more like a socio-political manifesto for faculty-specific Fallism. It is resplendent with words including inter alia: “victimization”, “theory of intersectionality”, “mould our individual beliefs and ideals, and, especially, “critical thinking”. The latter (used 12 times) is defined as “constantly arguing with oneself “ and “exhausting”, and ”transformation” at UCT is “a process of accelerated critical thinking with an emphasis on a particular idea” – “ultimate establishment of a state of socio-political (and therefore economic) equality eventual state of socio-political equilibrium”.
The Booklet’s goal is to “give those groups with less influence a chance to prioritise their voices and direct the refinement towards a state of equity” whose “disempowerment fuels rebellion and may push it to its threshold resulting violent behaviour, which may at times be the only way to achieve the platform to question or recompense something”. The words violent/violence are employed 43 times.
Health scientists like Mayosi and Noakes reveled in the academic game within UCT’s current ‘culture’: in pursuing ideas and finding funding, putting together teams and networks, mentoring juniors. For them, the pinnacle of research success is a scientifically defensible breakthrough finding that helps all sectors of the South African population. Fallists, the BAC and CCWG have an entirely different focus. They argue that the current faculty/UCT ‘culture’ that Mayosi/Noakes worked superbly within has to go and be replaced/decolonized by an undefined ‘something else’ that will emanate from “lived experience” communicated by “narratives” – not science. For trying to work within the “system” they, especially Mayosi became targets for the Academic Mob.
Sadly, the key question that may emanate from UCT’s ‘sensitisation’ and ‘decolonzation’ may be: “Who’s next?”