UCT reveals it has instituted an inquiry into the death of Prof Mayosi

Professor Bongani Mayosi. Picture: Nasief Manie
Professor Bongani Mayosi. Picture: Nasief Manie

An inquiry has been initiated into circumstances surrounding the death of Professor Bongani Mayosi.

Mayosi, dean of the health faculty at the University of Cape Town and renowned cardiologist, committed suicide on Friday last week. He succumbed to depression.

President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a special provincial official for him set to take place in Cape Town on Saturday.

He was an A-rated National Research Foundation researcher and had been awarded the Order of Mapungubwe in 2009 – the country’s highest honour.

Following a call by concerned academics and the Black Academic Caucus that UCT institute an inquiry into the death of Mayosi,  UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola revealed on Friday morning that an inquiry into his death had already been initiated. This had not been communicated to the university community.

"The university recognises that, however deeply distressing the occasion is, the passing of Professor Mayosi provides the space for all within the UCT community to reflect with integrity, honesty and compassion on the loss we have experienced and how we can support each other as individuals and as a community and create caring communities. It is a moment to build the university community."
Moholola referred to a statement made by newly appointed UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng in her address at the special memorial service held on Thursday.

In her address, Prof Phakeng said: "We have lost Professor Mayosi, but we have not lost his effect on us. That is something we can nurture and feed and build into our lives, so that his effect, his inspiration, can become a living part of us, as individuals and as the UCT community.
“That is what I am asking UCT as a community to reflect on, to commit to. And in those moments of reflection, whether silent or spoken, we emulate Professor Mayosi – that we do so with dignity, compassion, integrity, and honesty. In that way, we can be his memorial at UCT and his gift to the world.”
On Thursday the academics had said they were concerned with the manner in which the circumstances that precipitated Mayosi’s tragic fate had been handled following the announcement by his family on Saturday that he took his life.

READ: Shock at beloved prof’s sudden death

“Our proposal is that the UCT council should, as soon as possible after the funeral, set up an inquiry that will make a thorough investigation of the circumstances leading to Prof Mayosi’s decision to terminate his life. We also propose that this inquiry must be set up in consultation with especially black academics and students, who have on various occasions expressed their experiences of being marginalised at UCT,” the parties said in a joint statement.

“It is our view that an understanding of the working conditions in institutions such as UCT is key to such an inquiry. It is hard for us to exclude the UCT working environment from the tragic death of our colleague, Prof Mayosi, and indeed others, including students."

The parties said despite the Mayosi family indicating in a statement last Saturday that they were struggling to come to terms with their devastating loss and asked for privacy, there had been “mudslinging” in the last few days, which was “premature and not in keeping with the expressed wishes” of the family.

Media in the past few days reported tha Phakeng indicated that student protests over the past two years could have contributed to Mayosi’s deaths.

READ: Prof Phakeng’s fresh take on academia

Phakeng has dismissed these reports in a statement she issued on Tuesday.

“What I said was that the protests of 2016 and 2017 were not kind to any of us at UCT, and they were not kind to Professor Mayosi as dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences. His office was occupied for about two weeks in 2016. He had to manage pressure coming from many different directions, including from staff and students. And some black students were angry with him. They called him names, like coconut or sell-out, when his intentions were really for the students’ best welfare.

“I know how much Professor Mayosi loved UCT and the students here. He is the reason I applied for the position of vice-chancellor. He sat with me one day and explained that I needed to offer myself for this leadership role not for my own career but for the good of the institution, for the transformation of UCT. He knew that black students and staff members needed inspiration. That was one of his motivations in life: to inspire others to excellence in their studies and research and service to others,” Phakeng said.

READ: Bongani Mayosi - Healing hearts, making history

But students expressed shock in various platforms following her reported remarks.

Concerned academics and the Black Academic Caucus said the period up to Mayosi’s burial should be devoted to mourning and celebrating his life.

The parties proposed that the “entire process should be transparent and all records and archives pertinent to this investigation should be made available”.

They said this “applies specifically to all the correspondence and reports from the period students are alleged to have occupied Prof Mayosi’s office in 2016 to the day he died on July 27”.

The parties said it was their view that the results of the inquiry will not only help them understand the circumstances leading to the passing away of Prof Mayosi but will make a huge contribution to identifying in fairly precise terms what it is that “is wrong with the UCT structures and how these could be addressed to the benefit of especially the historically and currently marginalised groups, predominantly blacks”.

  • This article was updated on Friday (August 3 2018) to reflect the developments around the inquiry.

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