Even in his death, Bongani Mayosi seems to be giving his colleagues and students an incredible gift as they grapple with the tragic loss, the pain, the challenges they face and what it will take to heal UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences. Mayosi’s death a year ago left a raw, open wound in the faculty staff, students and of course, his family.
It felt as if Mayosi was never more alive than at the gathering on the afternoon of Friday, 26 July 2019, when a few hundred people came together at the faculty to honour him and his family.
Perhaps unlike what one expects of an academic – often operating in a more cerebral, intellectual space – the room was filled with a sense of love, compassion and kindness. His wife, Professor Nonhlanhla Khumalo, mother, Nontle Mayosi, daughter Nosipho Mayosi and other family members sat in the front rows, flanked by students and faculty members.
As colleagues and students spoke about his life for more than an hour, the gifted, service-orientated, humble, smiling and bespectacled Mayosi came alive.
And perhaps it was in the session of almost three hours that followed, that Mayosi gave his colleagues and students the greatest gift: several colleagues reflected in a profoundly personal, deeply authentic and moving way how his death has changed them, how painful it had been, how much anger there still is about a range of issues, many of which are systemic. In this moving dialogue, and “faculty introspection, reflection, healing and reconciliation” it felt as if a window had opened to give a glimpse of a changed faculty, a better university and a kinder world. Mayosi was a man of many firsts, an exceptional researcher, scientist, doctor and leader. He was UCT’s first black African South African dean to head up the world-renowned Faculty of Health Sciences. But it was his humanity and his love for his fellow human beings that was most celebrated on Friday. One after the other, six speakers spoke of Mayosi their “Madiba of Medicine”, champion, superhero, humble colleague, dreamer, dream maker, mentor; their “I-trust-you” person, their cheerleader, their listener and their man of value. His legacy was alive and vibrant. Mayosi believed in “lift as you rise”, he had a deep-seated belief that his own success was useless unless it accelerated the growth of others, benefited his country and ultimately the continent. “Some grief is immeasurable, but we have to find the grace in each other to accept,” said UCT Professor Mashiko Setshedi, a Mayosi family member. Setshedi quoted another brilliant scientist, Albert Einstein, to conclude her contribution: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” Physician Dr Neliswa Gogela paid homage to her “superhero”. “For 14 years I called him my superhero, but I now realise he was my guardian angel,” said Gogela, sharing her story of a rural Eastern Cape upbringing and her determination to succeed as a doctor to escape from poverty.
“When I came to UCT I felt protected [by Mayosi] and I knew he had my interests at heart. But his vision for me was bigger than UCT, he wanted me to dream bigger, dream the impossible.
“Thanks to my guardian angel for never giving up on me and for believing in me. Find your superhero, find your guardian angel,” she implored the audience, turning to the family: “Thank you for sharing Bongani with us.” Sister Veronica Francis spoke of Mayosi’s humility, leadership and big heart when she worked with him on research projects that had an impact on the world and most importantly on the poor.
Lwazi Mhlanti shared his journey from a driver to database and systems developer, all thanks to Mayosi “trusting me”.
Student Siwe Toto shared a story of how Mayosi stopped him in the corridor and asked him the “famous question” of what his future plans, his dreams were. The deputy dean, Professor Elelwani Ramugondo, a close friend and colleague, said Mayosi’s death was “something that shook UCT to the core”. Former student and later close friend and current head of medicine, Professor Ntobeko Ntusi’s “physician diagnosis” was that the community was in desperate need of healing, and signs of fracture had predated Mayosi’s death. His “prescription” was that leadership needed to create spaces for different and serious conversations. “We need to talk about how we envisage models of relating and teaching, allowing us to engage in kinder and gentler manners with each other. We need to create spaces for engagement, have conversations about racism, victimisation, transformation and the kind of values that are important to us. We need to shift to a value-based way of relating to each other,” said Ntusi. Perhaps what happened at UCT on Friday, could become a blueprint for how we start to try and heal the deep wounds in our society. To use the values, kindness and compassion of the Madibas and Mayosis to guide us to a better country for our children – and to find those values in our own selves. To give our children and ourselves the best shot at being the best we can be.
No doubt, Bongani Mayosi would have been smiling on Friday night.