Following an article in Cape Argus, probing whether students at UCT contributed to Prof Bongani Mayosi’s suicide, Helen Zille has found herself caught up in a fresh social media storm when she implied that ‘Fallists’, as those who support the #FeesMustFall movement are known, may have driven the noted cardiologist and academic to suicide.
Zille described a “demonisation campaign” driven by Fallists, and urged those involved to “contemplate the consequences of their hatefulness.” She added that “labeling people destroys their lives”.
Zille’s views are driven by information in the Cape Argus alleging that Mayosi was called a “coconut” by angry students, who allegedly occupied his office for 2 weeks during the protests.
According to UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng: “Students were angry at him, called him a coconut – out of anger. He experienced pressure from staff, students and black students,” the article reads.
Phakeng also said that Mayosi had no history of depression “until the day he was called a coconut.”
However, Zille’s tweet received a swift backlash, with many asserting their view that Mayosi was actually supportive of the #FeesMustFall movement and even protested alongside UCT students. There were also several voices agreeing with Zille and Phakeng, who one Twitter user said “spoke at length about the effects that the protests had on the mental health of academics”.
The article provides a counter to the argument that students contributed to Mayosi’s death. Student leader and activist Chumani Maxwele was quoted as saying that while he respects Phakeng’s opinion, he believed “the university killed Mayosi and seven other black students who committed suicide last year”.
“The biggest silent killer is the work environment for black academics at the institution, not him being called a coconut. Anyone who knew Mayosi knew his best work was at the lab,” Maxwele said.
“He at the time was the only senior academic, hence we pushed that he be elevated to a leading role in the institution. He was the most supportive academic, why would he be offended by students for whom he showed understanding?” he continued.
There are also those who, rather than seeking to find a reason for the professor’s suicide in events on campus, seek to instead spread awareness of the fact that depression is a disease, and that Mayosi’s suicide may have been driven by deeper reasons than the situational.
Lizette Rabe is a Stellenbosch professor of journalism and founder of the Ithemba Foundation, which seeks to create awareness around depression.
She penned an open letter saying that Mayosi “did not make a decision to kill himself”, saying that he was rather “the victim of humankind’s cruelest disease”.