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Celebrated Cardiologist Bongani Mayosi Dies

The 51-year-old University of Cape Town researcher had been suffering from depression, and his death has prompted reflection on being a black academic in South Africa.

Sep 12, 2018
Catherine Offord

ABOVE: At the time of his death, Mayosi was lead investigator for a multi-country study on the effectiveness of steroids as treatment for infectious diseases and their complications.
YOUTUBE, UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN

Bongani Mayosi, a prominent cardiologist and dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, died of suicide on July 27. He was 51.

“In the last two years he has battled with depression and on that day [Friday] took the desperate decision to end his life,” his family said in a statement at the time, News24 reports. “We are still struggling to come to terms with this devastating loss.”

Born in 1967, Mayosi grew up under apartheid in the Transkei region of South Africa. Homeschooled by his mother as a child, he later studied medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, incorporating a year of research to qualify for a BMedSci degree. In 1998, he won a fellowship to join the PhD program in the department of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Oxford. 

Upon returning to South Africa a few years later, Bongani worked on a number of projects, including searching for the genetic mutations underpinning arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy to identifying risk factors involved in cardiovascular disease. In 2006, at 38 years old, he became the first black person to chair the Department of Medicine at the University of Cape Town (UCT). 

His career over the next decade would be marked by several awards recognizing his contributions to cardiology. In 2007, he was named one of the top 25 “influential leaders in healthcare in South Africa,” and, two years later, received the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honor. In 2017, he was elected to the US National Academy of Medicine.

Becoming dean in 2016, Mayosi was responsible for handling part of the university’s response to a tumultuous period of student unrest across the country. In a letter published on News24, the university’s vice chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng writes that during that period, Mayosi’s “office was occupied for about two weeks in 2016. He had to manage pressure coming from many different directions, including from staff and students.” Over the next two years, Mayosi suffered from depression and took time off from his position; he resigned twice, but was persuaded to change his mind. 

Mayosi’s death has led colleagues to examine the external forces that might have contributed to his desperation. In early August, Johannesburg’s City Press and other outlets reported that UCT had instigated an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Mayosi’s death following calls from concerned colleagues and the university’s Black Academic Caucus. In a statement on Facebook on August 2, the Caucus wrote that “it is hard for us to exclude the UCT working environment from the tragic death of our colleague, and indeed others, including students.” Many researchers and activists also highlighted challenges Mayosi faced as a black academic in South Africa.

Matshidiso Moeti, the African regional director for the World Health Organization—where Mayosi had chaired the African Advisory Committee on Health Research & Development—was one of many health officials and researchers to send condolences after news of Mayosi’s death. “We will always cherish him for his diligence and immense contribution to the development of the WHO strategy for strengthening the use of evidence, information and research for policy-making in the African Region,” she wrote. 

Cardiologists Hugh Watkins of the University of Oxford and Ntobeko Ntusi of UCT write in a memorial published yesterday (September 11) in Circulation that “one of the most striking impressions from his funeral, attended by thousands of mourners who remembered him with awe and love, was the abundant evidence of his commitment to bring others with him, nurture talent, and provide the sorts of opportunity from which he had benefited. . . . We speak for many in saying that we are in awe of what Bongani achieved.”

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