Open letter written by Professor Bongani Mayosi’s peers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Medical School class of 1989
Dr Mervyn G. Maistry, Dr Fundile Nyati, Dr Urvashi Mungal-Singh
Since the 27th July 2018, those of us who knew, loved, admired and were inspired by Bongani Mawethu Mayosi, have been fraught with a mix of feelings. Shock, Sadness, Grief, Guilt, and Anger have filled our days. The reports in the Press as well as campaign posts on Social media, are now causing many of us to be both anxious and concerned for his legacy.
This has been compounded by an analysis of the mainstream Media, online media and social media over the last three weeks which indicates a disturbing trend of a simplistic conclusion and a whitewashing of the complexity of events that ultimately drove him to take his own life. It raises the suspicion of a coordinated PR campaign or campaigns; and an agreed-on narrative designed to shape public perception with contributors as far afield as Edinburg, Oxford, Gauteng and of course Cape Town. This has been to some extent successful with most people blaming students while ignoring the complex set of circumstances leading to his death.
In particular, two of these “opinion pieces” by the Sunday Times and the Biztimes have reached millions in readership and have subsequently been shared and commented on by hundreds of thousands of readers globally. Unfortunately, some of this incomplete, manipulated, narrative has been spreading and has already been internalised. This could be construed as a somewhat successful attempt to shape a superficial, right wing, anti-transformation narrative and we believe it must be actively fought against.
A number of the class of ’89, as his friends and colleagues for over 30 years, and many of us who have had close professional and personal contact with him over the last 2 years cannot sit by idly and watch the legacy of this great son of Africa and an intellectual icon be reduced to a facile narrative decided on behind closed doors by people with unclear motives and motivations. White male and female mainstream journalists with input from online right-wing contributors and bots are shaping a narrative that is successfully and insidiously creeping into mainstream discussion. We have yet to see a balanced, thoughtful, critical analysis that unpacks the complexity of what transpired in the context of South Africa’s socio-political reality.
We, therefore, add our voices to calls for an open, public, and impartial enquiry into the MULTIPLE, complex causative factors behind Bongani’s passing. We believe this is the only route that will ensure a sober, transparent understanding of what the contributory factors were, which of these causative factors still exist and will lead to a constructive programme of action to address deficiencies and culpabilities by ALL parties who have failed him. We are convinced this is necessary to protect his legacy, ensure his role model status for young South Africans; and to further the cause of educational transformation in which he so passionately believed.
Why are his colleagues from the class of ’89 responding and why do we feel it is our responsibility?
The class of ’89 at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine was a close-knit class who were often called the Maverick class and we were criticized by many of the Old South Africa academic establishment. We have lived with, worked with and known Bongani Mawethu Mayosi for over 30 years. All of us entered our first year in Medical school fresh out of political struggles at high school. We were involved in protests, fighting for a better society and a better world from our first day. We faced security police, torture, teargas, batons, and live ammunition together.
We understood struggle, we understood white supremacy, we understood racism, we understood smiling, benevolent, faces that would stab you in the back for career advancement and we understood the forces working to protect white privilege. Bongani, even at Medical School was our fiercely intellectual icon & our gentle, helpful hero. For the record, his organisational skills, his time management, his ability to achieve, put us all to shame, including many of the white medical faculty members. The narrative also indicates that administration and organization “was not his thing”. In our experience of him this remains blatantly untrue. We, all of us, without exception were and remain proud of him and who he was, and he will forever remain one of our own. We are publicly committed to an honest, transparent and constructive appraisal of what transpired to this genius and icon, while he was in the care and charge of the University of Cape Town leadership, management and students.
The “PR narrative” which emerged post his funeral on the 04th August, has been reshared and referenced without any critical analysis. The deliberately? selective use of facts, taken out of context, blame his suicide almost exclusively on the student protests at the beginning of 2016. Two years ago! Headlines like “Black on Black racism” and the ignorant “analysis” that “he never recovered from being called a coconut and a sellout” are left to linger as THE overwhelming cause. We know that these terms were NOT used by Health Science students. His family’s gracious, well balanced and mature response in the face of mind-numbing tragedy has been twisted and selectively used by journalists and some UCT academics to push a fractionally true, incomplete assessment. The editors of the Sunday Times and the Biztimes need to re-examine their definition of- and their commitment to journalism. We accept his suicide is attributable to his desperate circumstance. Depression is a symptom of circumstances. Deep depression is a symptom of chronic underlying causes. The underlying causes of his depression and the precipitating factor/s of his final desperate act need to evaluated before facile conclusions are reached and broadcast. It is not too much to ask any journalist, worthy of the title, to research and know the subject/s about which they are writing. Newspapers that are found to be engaging in such poor journalism cannot be deemed worthy of receiving respectable advertising revenue.
This current oversimplified narrative is galling to those who have known him professionally and personally and those who have spoken to him about “his desperate circumstances” in the last 12 months. This narrative, tacitly supported by a section of UCT, threatens to reduce, an intellectual and research giant, to an overly sensitive, incompetent leader lacking administrative skills and unable to recover from incidents that happened two years ago. This is a slap in the face to a man who should be remembered and groomed as an inspiration to coming generations.
Three important topics require investigation and answers.
1. Has there been a coordinated PR strategy? Was there in fact, a “dossier” compiled by members of the Faculty of Health Sciences to be used against Bongani. Rumours must be validated or squashed, they cannot be left to linger or fester.
2. Does UCT or any other 3rd party have a PR firm managing the messaging and writing speeches? If UCT is not involved, should the University with its formidable PR machinery and financial resources tackle mainstream media like the Sunday Times and online outlets for disingenuous advertorials instead of balanced journalism. Why have they not done so?
3. Thirdly, what is the best option for a transparent process of enquiry with a goal of constructive outcomes? Here, much of the class of ’89 has made our position clear. We have been given to understand that the University has committed itself to an open, public enquiry to determine the weightings of the multiple causative factors and we look forward to a public announcement of this enquiry. A member or members of the class of 89 should be part of this process.
Why is an Open Transparent Public Enquiry necessary?
There is no doubt that Bongani was deeply hurt and deeply troubled by interactions with students in the Fees must Fall protests of 2016. There is no denial of this. His leave of absence was as a direct result of this. He was deeply disappointed and disturbed enough, by a combination of the student protests and other anti-transformation factors, to require 3 months leave of absence. The pressures of transformation in a transformation- resistant environment coupled with the scorched earth actions of some student leaders took its toll. It has not been asked or investigated IF and HOW a transformation resistant cabal within UCT used these protests to their own advantage within the public sphere or within official university structures? In addition, the University support for Bongani during and after his three month leave of absence needs to be unpacked? Was it adequate? Was it appropriate? Can we learn from this tragic event to support other black academics in traditionally, often transformation resistant, white universities?
We can only research the events and construct hypotheses as to how he internalized these conflicts and complexities. This should NOT be left to the Press where the current standard of journalism is inconsistent and where special interests can buy influence and construct narratives. We believe a through timeline of events are needed and have constructed a draft first version to bring clarity to the situation. This has remained elusive in all the reporting of the last three weeks. We have reached out to Vice Chancellor Phakeng to indicate our concerns and offer our assistance.
Timeline of Events
What we do know is that when he came back after a three-month absence, he joined the students on a march in favour of “Fees must Fall”, a cause, we know he supported. Although he remained stressed by students and lamented the lack of discipline and political strategy in their leadership, he also acknowledged the role of students in forcing and accelerating the discussions on transformation. He is on record supporting the #FeesMustFall movement and we know he toi toied with students in October 2017, much to the disgust of many senior academics and management. One month later, he felt compelled to tender his resignation. His comment to some of us was “Apartheid has brutalized us all, some more than others”, “Let’s not cry over spilt milk and find a way forward”.
The open, question that must be answered remains: — were those experiences, which happened two years ago so powerful to have led to his demise in such an unfortunate way in 2018 — as some in the Press and some within UCT are insinuating? We remain unconvinced and believe that only an enquiry can debunk this. To paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — We cannot allow “this dangerous single story” to endure.
How do we envisage Moving Forward?
What is painfully clear is that all the actors involved failed this brilliant man. Culpability and the weighting of culpability must be apportioned. This is not for blame but to allow constructive remedial action to be taken and resources for the solutions to be allocated proportionately and appropriately. It is vitally important to the memory of Bongani that a more balanced perception within the public domain is established to ensure a transparent, honorable legacy worthy of this great son of Africa.
To correct the current misrepresentations, the selective use of facts and the resulting public misperceptions thus far, all the actors/ institutions from our perspective are summarized:
1. As his colleagues in the class of ’89, we failed to recognise his need, even though we called him for advice right up to the last week. What we do know is that despite his trauma, he gave cogent, valuable advice and feedback.
2. The Faculty of Health Sciences, for allowing a few of their number to reduce this genius to a series of administrative “failings”. All this, while he managed to publish over 300 papers and transform the Dept of Internal Medicine at UCT. In addition, he was only one of 172 international medical scholars to receive admission into the National Academy of Medicine and only one of ten to receive it in October 2017. The unspeakable tragedy of this accolade was that the Faculty did not (wittingly or unwittingly) grant him the time and the space to bask in the glory of this achievement. In retrospect it is shocking how little he was celebrated in a country that was in sore need for a role model.
3. The students who abused, disturbed and disappointed him, as well as damaging his sense of self and his sense of history. A scorched earth policy is not a suitable engagement policy for a successful transformative future. Future student leaders need to learn lessons from this.
4. The University management for not recognising his true historical leadership role; his academic and research expertise; but instead pressuring him to be an administrator. Words like “unappointable”, “lacking in gravitas”, “incompetence” with selective evidence is just the language of white privilege. It is not aimed at support or solutions but are aimed at maintaining white privilege. The senior people who further pushed him into deeper water by allegedly calling him reckless and naïve for supporting the student protests. The “invisible” cabal who put more pressure on him for allegedly endangering university funding without evidence. The alleged rumours of him “burning bridges” to wealthy white donors need to be thoroughly investigated and found to be either true or false. They cannot however be ignored. Did these events, if true, constitute Workplace discrimination?
5. The University Council and Senate between 2016 and 2018, for allegedly not supporting him more thoroughly; financially, administratively and morally and for not recognising his true genius; for not protecting him and for not nurturing him as a much-needed transformation icon. If true, it raises the question of whether UCT had any vision for transformation. It also raises questions about their commitment to transformation and the understanding of the management and leadership vacuum amongst the non-black section of the University.
6. Lastly, the South African mainstream and fringe media cannot deny their role. He was not celebrated in a more affirming, public way commensurate with his unique genius and potential in a South African context. This may have given him the needed counterweight to an erosion of his self-esteem by both the students and the White Privilege/ White Supremacist ideologues at UCT. Instead we have seen elements of “schadenfreude” in the media at the so called “black on black racism” (National Party strategy resurges). Interestingly, the most well-known doctor in South Africa is a television celebrity with not a single academic paper to his name. But he is tall, white and male. We need to examine the role of the media in shaping and perverting public perception and values.
We end this on two final points which we believe go the heart of the problem.
1. Apartheid, White privilege and Racism has taken its toll on us all, as human beings, as families, as communities and as institutions. Those advantaged by its brutality are forced to live with either with guilt or in denial; and those brutalised by its inflicted poverty should realise the extent of this brutality and openly, honestly, authentically and transparently examine all their shortcomings and their strengths. It should also be an opportunity to literally purge both the anti-transformation forces, the white supremacist elements, as well as, admit to and redress the imbalances of white privilege.
2. Our belief is that If Bongani Mayosi had been a White, Jewish, Presbyterian or Moslem male; or whatever the prevailing positive media stereotype in the Western Cape is now, he would have been celebrated as a South African hero while he was alive. Instead we needed his tragic death to make us painfully aware of his true value as a leader and as a South African icon. Unfortunately for him, he was a black man in a country where the educational system is largely untransformed and where the intellectual genius of black African men and women is not recognized. Instead there has been a focus on meaningless poison arrows; “administration not being his thing”, leadership lacking, naivete, lacking in gravitas, etc. etc. etc.
What is painfully pertinent to all South Africans, who are not white is that Professor Bongani Mawethu Mayosi, a genius amongst intellectuals, a mensch of the highest order, a research & academic giant with over 300 papers to his name was found to be wanting or deficient by the structures of white privilege and their servants. This begs the question, if a man of the caliber and genius of Bongani Mayosi could not survive within the bastions of academia while they are purportedly committed to transformation, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The class of ’89 from the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine believe we have a vitally important role to play in preserving his professional legacy and will support the family and the University whenever and wherever we are called upon to do so. Our plea is that instead of reducing Bongani Mayosi to a 2016 caricature of who he really was, we should see this tragedy as a opportunity to constructively uncover root causes and put into place a model authentic transformation agenda to benefit all of UCT and the country.
In this way we will truly honour who Prof Bongani Mawethu Mayosi was.
Dr Mervyn G. Maistry — Lecturer — Innovation & Entrepreneurship; CEO Konfidio Blockchain Ventures; Chair: Foundation against Discrimination, Berlin, 14050
Dr Urvashi Mungal-Singh — Consultant Hematologist, Cape Town, 8001
Dr Fundile Nyathi, CEO, Proactive Health Solutions (Pty) Ltd, Midrand, Gauteng ,1685