UCT report on ‘corrosive’ factors around suicide of Health Sciences dean

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The University of Cape Town released its report into the suicide two years ago of Health Sciences dean, Professor Bongani Mayosi, reports MedicalBrief. The independent report draws a picture of “a complex set of developments which had a cumulative and sometimes corrosive impact on Professor Mayosi and various sections of the university community, spilling over to the broader society…”

Daily Maverick reports that while noting animosity from students and colleagues during the protests, the report repeatedly points a finger at UCT for failing to provide adequate support to a top staff member, whose mental wellness was clearly faltering. Ambiguity around a new job within the university is believed to have further devastated a fragile Mayosi days before his suicide.

The bereaved family of Mayosi say they are considering the recently released report into his death. The university has undertaken to immediately implement the report’s recommendations and to pay tribute to his legacy.

MedicalBrief‘s verbatim extracts from the 139-page report:

From the outset, the panel understood the enormity, sensitivity and complexity of the task. The panel met with the family to brief them on the task, and to solicit their understanding on the confidentiality element of the terms of reference, especially what it would mean to them in practical terms. The family’s guidance was very helpful in this respect. A simple look at the terms in which the demand for an inquiry were couched revealed the depth of feeling among the stakeholders. This was con rmed by the interviews that the panel conducted. These feelings ranged from a wish that Professor Mayosi’s passing should occasion a process of deep introspection by the university as to its institutional culture and how it treated black staff in particular, to concerns by some that student protestshad gotten out of hand and caused a great deal of trauma, to worries by the students themselves that they had been unduly blamed in this matter. On the other side of the fence, there were some strong views expressed that the inquiry was “a waste of time and money” set up primarily to pander to those who wished to see the university being blamed for everything that happened. There were even a few, notably few, voices which objected to the appointment of a panel in the case of Professor Mayosi’s suicide, when the suicide of a long-serving administrator in the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS), albeit retired, was never probed. This clearly indicated to the panel the diverse and contradictory views of the university community on the utility of this task.

The topics addressed below represent a complex set of developments which had a cumulative and sometimes corrosive impact on Professor Mayosi and various sections of the university community, spilling over to the broader society once the tragic passing of Professor Mayosi was public knowledge. It is worth noting that even though the prominent context of Professor Mayosi’s tenure was the fact that it coincided with the tension-riddled period of the student protests, this, in many instances illuminated fault lines and weaknesses within the university systems and group dynamics including the vexing and often elusive issue of transformation. These topics are not arranged in any order of importance but are an attempt to sequence them according to the evolution of events:

Professor Mayosi’s Rise to the Deanship and Faculty Dynamics
By many accounts, Professor Mayosi’s star was in the ascendant as Head of the Department of Medicine, when the position of Dean became vacant. It came as no surprise when some colleagues approached him to apply for the position. Information received by the panel was that he overcame an initial reluctance to throw his hat in the ring and had become an enthusiastic candidate by the time he submitted his application. People in the faculty still speak of the powerful presentation he delivered to his colleagues during the interview process. When the application was successful, he arranged to take part of his sabbatical leave, in order to study a management course at the Harvard Business School and to visit Medical Faculties at other institutions abroad as part of his preparation for the task. Reports on his return to the faculty con rm this commitment and enthusiasm. He took office at the beginning of September 2016. A few days after his assumption of duty the #FeesMustFall protests erupted in the Faculty of Health Sciences, which hitherto had been largely spared the turbulence that was raging around the university and countrywide. The panel has concluded that this baptism by fire had a profound impact on Professor Mayosi’s tenure as Dean. Veering visibly towards sympathy with the students’ cause, he was to suffer criticism from all sides for some of his decisions: from some faculty colleagues for not stamping down on the unrest; from some on his executive team for sometimes going against collective decisions and being perceived as bowing to student pressure; and from some students themselves, for not solving their problems quickly enough. The pressure on Professor Mayosi became relentless and, as reported to the panel by many interviewees, the impact of the stressful circumstances started to affect his work negatively.

Student Protests and their Impact on Professor Mayosi and the Faculty
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 a ecting 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. In Chapter 3 the panel draws from a range of interviews with Professor Mayosi’s colleagues, administrative staff, and students to show how the energy and enthusiasm he brought with his vision was soon dimmed by the relentless and sometimes aggressive stance of the student protesters. From the interviews with Professor Mayosi’s colleagues, the panel found that the sometimes disrespectful manner in which the FHS students’ protest was conducted, and instigation of students’ action by some of his colleagues, caused him a lot of distress. The level of distress Professor Mayosi experienced is captured in his own handwritten notes shared with the panel in which he states that he was “deeply affected by the trauma of the period.” The interviews showed that while students respected Professor Mayosi and acknowledged the role that he played in supporting black students, the urgency with which they wanted him to attend to the long-standing grievances that had been unaddressed in the FHS led to actions that went beyond the boundaries of respectful behaviour. The panel found that Professor Mayosi often faced situations where his faculty had to make hard choices and difficult decisions, such as support of the students’ march to Bremner, postponement of examinations and declaration of a mini-semester. These decisions were met with hostile reactions which were directed at him as dean by some members of management, students and academic staff alike, leading Professor Mayosi increasingly to feel a sense of isolation. There can be no doubt that his leadership was challenged by these experiences.

Issues of Mental Health
The panel was alive to the mental health debates in institutions of higher learning in South Africa, a focus that was further reinforced by the IRTC report of 2018 and the FHS’s Mental Health Working Group (MHWG) ndings of April 2019. These reports highlighted, in addition to student unrest, the broader effects of racism, discrimination and the slow pace of transformation on the mental wellbeing of campus communities. The panel noted the tendency of these debates to result in some measure of provision to address mental health among students, and not so much for staff, apart from the emphasis on coaching services. At UCT, what struck the panel was the time that it took for Professor Mayosi’s mental health struggles to reach those in authority. According to members of the family, there were no detectable signs of any psychiatric problems prior to Professor Mayosi’s ascension to the deanship. Many interviewees spoke of specific incidents during which they noted Professor Mayosi’s behavior as being changed from that of the person they knew. Others were privy to actual episodes of unwellness, detected either at the faculty or on travels abroad. Certainly, the episodes were enough to have Professor Mayosi granted sick leave on two occasions. Noting these reports, the panel struggled tofi nd 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. Even more concerning for the panel is the fact that this lack of awareness led to Professor Mayosi having to operate in an atmosphere where the demands on him were on the basis of “business as usual”, while his capacity was impaired.

Attempted Resignation(s) and the Promise of Redeployment
This was yet another cluster of issues that were prominent in public discourse in the aftermath of Professor Mayosi’s passing. The two are linked because the very same pressures that led to Professor Mayosi’s resignation from the deanship would possibly have been alleviated if the offered redeployment to a senior research post had succeeded. The panel was told that the story doing the rounds was that there were at least two attempted resignations by Professor Mayosi, which were turned down by the university. The allegation had been seen on social media and had been mentioned in speeches. The underlying criticism of the university implicit in this allegation was not lost on the panel: this allegation, if proven, would be a damaging indictment of insensitivity on the part of the institution. The panel thus took special care to sift through the available evidence.

The resignation most clearly backed by the evidence was Professor Mayosi’s letter of 3 November 2017 to the VC, Max Price, which was accompanied by two more documents that helped to cast more light on the incident. Evidence presented to the panel was that that particular resignation had not been refused, but rather that Professor Mayosi was persuaded to withdraw it, after mechanisms to ease his burdens were promised. The panel was presented with minimal evidence that shows that some attempts were made to ease his burdens, but it remains unclear whether these attempts made any substantial difference. In the panel’s assessment, these attempts seem to have borne little or no fruit. As to speculation that he might have been coerced into withdrawing his resignation, the panel has found no formal evidence of this. Other possible resignation attempts are matters of reported conversations with Professor Mayosi by close friends and associates, some of which the panel found to be corroborated and credible. There is no formal documentation attesting to these.

The issue of the proposed-then-withdrawn offer of a research post under the Pro Vice-Chancellor title also exercised the collective mind of the panel considerably. It was another of those occasions where it was necessary to name names, since there was executive accountability involved. Chapter 5 describes in close detail, sourced mainly from the Vice-Chancellor, the unfolding of events since the notion was mooted that Professor Mayosi could steer a substantial research project into diseases of poverty, which would cut across disciplines and across state borders, since it was conceived as a continent-wide endeavour. The concept played to Professor Mayosi’s strengths as a scholar of high academic and research profile nationally, continentally and globally. The VC spearheaded the effort, consulting widely within and outside UCT before broaching the subject to Professor Mayosi. From the accounts of interviewees, he embraced the plan, to the extent of participating in a meeting of the Dean’s Advisory Committee and heads of department at which the VC unveiled the project and confirming in his speech that he was ready to take on the challenge. The plan unravelled when, in a special faculty board meeting presumably called to announce Mayosi as PVC, the VC did not make the expected announcement. In the panel’s view, the e ects on Professor Mayosi must have been devastating.

University’s Handling of the News of Prof Mayosi’s Passing
After a review of the public materials relating to the passing of Professor Mayosi, including communications of the tragedy in internal and external outlets, the panel expresses dissatisfaction with the way that the university executive dealt with the matter. Tracing official communications from the very first message announcing Professor Mayosi’s death, the panel nds that the earlier communications were couched sensitively and in measured tones, as were the responses of the family. The problems began when the interactive media came into the picture, with a particular attempt by the Vice-Chancellor to explain an earlier statement which had been widely construed as placing the blame for Mayosi’s death on the protesters, appearing to inflame emotions even further. There followed a series of corrosive exchanges in social media platforms which involved a great deal of finger-pointing. The conclusions of the panel are summed up the following finding, emphasising that crisis communication of such a delicate matter should have been handled differently.

UCT’s Institutional Culture and its Impact on Black Staff
In conclusion the panel addresses the elusive issue of institutional culture, by first attempting to settle on a working definition of the label, and then proceeding to tease out some of the more pressing issues, as perceived mostly by black staff in senior positions. Areas of concern that emerged from testimony by the panel’s interviewees included issues that recurred throughout the various conversations. These were:

  • performance – the problem here appeared to be the persistentperception 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.
  • informal networks – these were described as the ‘corridor talk’ that in uences decision-making at UCT, dificult to detect and therefore dificult to counter.
  • effects of austerity cuts – though specific to a particular era, this was experienced in certain black leadership quarters
  • as an example of unequal bargaining power when it came to hard decisions such as which programmes should be cut or retained. Some interviewees felt that the decisions went along racial lines.
  • contradictory expectations on black leaders – this aspect of the life of senior black staff came through clearly for the panel from the mouths of the interviewees concerned, even though it appears to be difficult to prove scientifically.
  • identity politics – the panel observed that, adding to the tensions around the black-white mix in the university community, were the fault-lines that sometimes existed internally amongst members of each of these broad designations, showing that, by and large black staff in particular should not be seen as a monolithic group.


1. Compulsory Immersion Programme in Diversity Sensitivity
Given the recurring concerns about identity issues centring on race, gender, age group, religion, social class and nationality, it has become imperative to subject staff, particularly those in leadership positions, to a deep, and compulsory, immersion programme of diversity sensitivity training. This must be more than the usual basic one- or two-day workshop that institutions often conduct. Such a programme should assist staff members to unlearn often subconscious identity-based prejudices and relearn new skills while embracing 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.

2. Institutional Arrangements and Support for the Faculty of Health Sciences and its Leadership
There is a need to review the institutional architecture of the Faculty of Health Sciences to provide proper support that is responsive to the faculty’s unique position. This position reflects the size of the research portfolio and the amount of funds raised, the complexity of managing the interests of multiple internal and external stakeholders, including the direct interface with the provincial and national health departments and medical agencies as well as suppliers of medical materials and facilities. Such an arrangement should particularly focus on support for the dean, the deanery, the departments and specialised divisions, institutes and centres.

3. Balancing the often Competing Requirements of Management Roles and Academic Research Needs
As the findings of the panel have indicated, the demands of leadership often compete with, and at times undermine, any passion for the pursuit of academic research, especially when the person appointed is at the crest of his or her career, or at a critical point in their career trajectory. Even leading researchers may have several multi-year research commitments in the studies that they lead, thus creating dual and often competing responsibilities once they assume positions of management. An actual assessment of existing and prospective research programmes involving a prospective manager must be undertaken to assess the load and provide advice or assistance on a meaningful transition.

4. Memorialisation and Preservation of Professor Mayosi’s Legacy
As part of dealing with the tragedy in a positive, creative and sustainable manner, there is a need to memorialise Professor Bongani Mayosi in a manner be tting his stature, his contribution to the university as well as his transformative scholarship and excellence. Such memorialisation could include scholarships, memorial lectures or renaming of new or old buildings after him. In this manner Professor Mayosi’s tragic death, which became a symbol of pain and division, could be transformed into a positive memorial to black academic excellence and sustainable transformation. Such a symbolic recognition will also assist UCTs own journey of transformation and reconciliation.

5. Succession Planning as a Vehicle for Embedding Transformative Support Structures
UCT, like any self-respecting organisation, has had succession planning policies for many years, operating in units, budget centres and departments across the university, with varying degrees of success. What is proposed here is that UCT must take the opportunity offered by the events that led to this report to ensure that policies and mechanisms are put in place to ensure an effective succession planning regime that goes beyond bureaucratic compliance with labour legislation and selection guidelines, but encompasses creative identi cation, preparation and mentoring mechanisms. UCT needs a creative system that picks up on potential and nurtures it up the ladder, with built-in training, mentorship and other empowerment resources, culminating in structured induction and 360-degree support to the new incumbent of a senior post, including the availability of effective “panic button” mechanisms in times of need. Staff identifed as having leadership potential should be exposed to leadership opportunities such as regular acting appointments during the absence of senior colleagues as part of their empowerment and, once appointed, should enjoy access to clearly defined avenues for trouble- shooting support.

6. A University-wide Programme of Healing and Atonement as a Post- trauma Response
The #FeesMustFall student protests that swept across South African public universities from October 2015 were unprecedented in scale and intensity and were particularly traumatic for institutions such as UCT which had not experienced such upheaval in a long while. These experiences had ramifications of psychological trauma that impacted profoundly on students, staff and management. The tragic death of Professor Mayosi further deepened this trauma and the handling of both the protests and the death of Professor Mayosi left deep psychological scars and divisions which remain unresolved. It is for this reason that we recommend a university-wide programme of healing, atonement and redemptive reconciliation which will also develop rules of engagement in resolving similar challenges should they arise in future. As many of the people interviewed by the panel indicated, the psychological debt of scars left by these deeply traumatic experiences cannot be left unattended.

7. E ective Crisis Management and Crisis Communication Strategy

Communication and management of the passing of Professor Mayosi was impulsive, reactive, defensive and uncoordinated. In the age of mass digital communication this seriously dented the image of the institution and further polarised its various constituencies, depriving them of the opportunity to mourn collectively. Similarly, the communication and handling of various incidents of student protest caught the university o guard as protestors seem to have had the upper hand in setting the agenda of public discourse, with the university authorities reacting.

There is a need to develop an effective and coordinated crisis management and crisis communication system, with a clear indication of the instances where the chairperson of Council, the Vice-Chancellor, the Deputy Vice- Chancellors, the Registrar and/or the university spokesperson must speak, as well as a consistent message that they convey to the public. This should include developing common talking points and holding statements that anticipate the occurrence of certain incidents. A crisis management leadership team should be in place in the event of a crisis in order to coordinate responses and ensure operational continuity.

8. Early Detection and Decisive Intervention in Cases of Mental Health Distress
With the help of hindsight, it is now common knowledge that many senior leaders of the university and Professor Mayosi’s colleagues were aware of his mental health challenges (whether characterised as depression or burnout) but seemed unable to take decisive steps to intervene and in some instances simply added more responsibilities, thus further compounding the problem. For an institution of this international standing, which also hosts one of the leading research and academic hospitals on the continent, UCT ought to develop very clear guidelines for early detection and swift intervention when its staff members or students have health challenges.

9. Balancing Staff Well-being and Demographic Imperatives
UCT must devise ways to promote a culture in which the management of senior leaders, especially those from designated groups, is characterised by sensitivity to the balance that must to be struck between the individual needs and aspirations of these staff members, and the demographic imperatives of the institution’s transformation programmes. In the panel ndings there were disturbing suggestions that Professor Mayosi made more than the one recorded tilt at resigning, but to no avail. The suggestion that on some of these occasions the arguments used to discourage him were those of institutional stability are particularly worrying.

10. Hostile Engagements and New Ways of Managing Conflict
The 2015/2016 university student protests in South Africa were unprecedented in their scale and intensity. They were both national in their form and institutional in their manifestation. This must be borne in mind in any assessment of how stakeholders expressed themselves and how institutions managed the protests and demands. Information from interviews revealed to the panel that the genuine concerns of student protestors are often blemished by the violent and intemperate nature of confrontation, that is often led by a few individuals. Such confrontation, which often goes beyond the rules of decent democratic engagement, leads to humiliation and suppresses many voices that then retreat into silence out of fear of reprisals. In a knowledge institution open expression ought to be an intrinsic element of the political culture, or the possibility exists that a tyranny of those who can exert more violence or pressure may prevail, thus suffocating democratic discursive spaces. The University and all its different stakeholders should come together with the aim of developing rules for democratic engagement, which should be enshrined in a compact. This will go a long way towards ensuring that the political culture of intimidation and humiliation does not take root, while at the same time guaranteeing the democratic right to express grievances or alternative views.

There is a general consensus even though from different standpoints that the protests would not have been as prolonged, nor as vicious at times, had the university’s initial response been more measured and less reactionary. UCT leadership must develop as a matter of urgency the ability to adopt a proactive, open and non-defensive approach to engagements with students and staff which involve discontent and potential conflict. Not only must mechanisms be put in place for early detection of signs of discontent, but the university on these occasions must strive to seek out and focus on the causes and substance of the discontent rather than on the manner of its expression. An engaging and responsive institutional culture is of vital importance in pre-empting, and e ectively dealing, with future challenges.


Full Daily Maverick report


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