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Why the Mayosi report matters for every higher education institution

Thabo Msibi, Dean of Education

This week I found myself weeping while reading the chilling report investigating the untimely death of one the nation's distinguished academics, Professor Bongani Mayosi. The report covers a whole range of challenges confronted by Professor Mayosi, culminating in his passing away through his own hand in July 2018.

The implications of the report are not only significant for UCT, the report points to systemic racism embedded in the institutional culture at UCT, but also the entire higher education system. South Africa is yet to adequately reflect on sustained corrupt cultures inherited from apartheid (as well as new emerging cultures) which continue to be defining features of both historically white and historically black higher education institutions in post-apartheid South Africa.

The report presents a series of disturbing events that effectively led to Prof Mayosi's demise. Chief among these is the pressure Professor Mayosi received from students, particularly as it relates to the #Feesmustfall movement, and its important calls for a decolonised education. The report points to several efforts by Mayosi to meet the student demands, sometimes under serious duress, stress and attack from colleagues and students, leading to his isolation both within his faculty and also within the broader institutional management. It highlights UCT's failure to support a man who was by all accounts a perfectionist, but found himself viewed as underperforming by his superiors. It flags his failed attempt(s) at resigning, and finally, a promising offer by the university, which would have seen him leave his position as Dean in order to head a regional centre of excellence, well aligned to his passions. Alas, what would have been an announcement of this appointment - perhaps even a triumph for Mayosi in the faculty - never occurred. Professor Mayosi was later found dead on the same day.

During the cover-to-cover reading of the report, I could not help but reflect on my own journey as dean, including the journeys of other senior colleagues in the sector. One conclusion I could easily make is that the pursuit of transformation in higher education is a personally risky undertaking for university managers. The type of pressures, stress and risks that individual leaders undertake is often not worth the pay cheques, particularly for vice chancellors, that some are attacked for in the media (this is not to say that all salaries paid to South African vice-chancellors are justified).

The dangers in higher education institutions lie on the one hand in the untransformed structures, cultures and practices historically inherited from apartheid that serve to systemically exclude those considered the 'other'. The 'other' relates to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, provinciality and culture. On the other hand, new post-apartheid personal enrichment cultures seeking to align universities with powerful centres of power have emerged. Both these institutional cultures established in some universities are powerfully corrosive and politically contrived. Internal actors connive behind closed doors just to derail any leader deemed to be an impediment or threat to the institutionally established norms. Progressive leaders are targeted through an outward public display of chaos, covert and overt forms of violence, false accusations of corruption, accusations of mismanagement and of incompetence - acts that are politically contrived to protect institutional players from transformation or a change.

This is not to say that there isn't corruption happening in higher education institutions, but rather that oftentimes it is precisely those who are corrupt that seek to undermine clean-up efforts by alleging corruption. Ask any person who has been in leadership and has sought to transform higher education (whether it be dealing with racism, discrimination or corruption) and they'll show you some wounds. They will speak of anonymous death threats, character assassinations flashed through falsified media reports, deliberate acts of insubordination and undermining in the name of academic freedom, or even death. Respected professors like Mayosi and Botman are examples of how this corrosive institutional culture kills leaders. Gregory Kamwendo's murder signifies yet another example of a leader whose fight against corruption led to his grave.

Almost all the reports produced on discrimination and maladministration in higher education allude to a corrupt system that is resistant to change, and that quickly adapts to speak the right language while it continues its exclusionary and corrupt ways. Disruption to these cultures threatens their future, which then positions transformative leaders as targets for attack.

As we mull through the report, let us remember that this report is once again telling us that Rome is burning. It tells of the personal risks and dangers that individuals who are committed to the project of transformation are exposed to. The report asks us for deep introspection on the rot hidden in the institutional cultures of our higher education institutions. We need to build institutional cultures that are truly transformative, ethical and aligned to a democratic and just society. The question is how many more must die before these issues are taken seriously. My hope is that Professor Mayosi's death would not be in vain.