Professor Mayosi was 'black excellence' - UCT vice-chancellor

University of Cape Town Professor Bongani Mayosi was black excellence, vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng told mourners at his memorial service in the main hall of the campus on Thursday.

"We, black people, can honour his legacy by becoming that message that was walking around on campus," said Phakeng.

The 1 200-seater hall was packed with many attendees wearing their academic gowns. The service was also live-streamed from the university's website. Buses were arranged for students who wanted to attend and the programme, led by registrar Royston Pillay, included musical items of opera and jazz.

"His personal story could resonate with many of our students," Phakeng said of Mayosi's early life as the son of a doctor, who travelled through rural Eastern Cape to visit patients.

"He saw the struggles of Africans, first hand."

READ: Special Provincial Official Funeral declared for Prof Mayosi

Mayosi died last Friday, July 27. His family later shared that he had ended his own life and that he had struggled with depression. His death has broadened discussion on awareness of the illness, and the SA Depression and Anxiety Group noted that there had been a spike in people reaching out to them for help since his family revealed how he had died.

The accolades for the 51-year-old, who was born in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, included that he had started university at the age of 16. When most students were ready to just push through and graduate, he decided to spend two years conducting research before finishing his degree.

He graduated with distinctions with a BMedSci from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 1986; an MBChB with distinction from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 1989; an FCP(SA), from The Colleges of Medicine of South Africa in 1995, and a DPhil from the University of Oxford in 2003.

His CV runs over two pages and includes pioneering work on tuberculous pericarditis and in identifying a "heart attack gene". It also notes that he was honoured with the Order of Mapungubwe, Silver in 2009.

Mayosi's sister Khuthala told the packed hall that her brother used to find quotations and put them on his wall and gather his four siblings and question them on whether they understood them.

'Geniuses like him, unfortunately ... don't tend to live long'

One of his favourites was a quote by missionary Étienne de Grellet which read: "I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."

She shared an anecdote about a day that there was panic in their home when her mother could not find her. They later discovered that he had taken her with him to school so that she could also start learning.

"And that is how I started school at the age of 3," she said, bringing some levity to the solemn occasion.

Deputy Health Minister Dr Mathume Phaahla said at first he hoped that the bearer of the news had made a mistake when he was told of Mayosi's death and how he had died.

"It is natural under these circumstances to have a lot of questions. It's natural," said Phaahla.

"Did we fail him? Couldn't we have done something better? Could we have intervened?"

He said the last time he saw Mayosi was at a graduation ceremony in Stellenbosch recently.

READ: UCT must take responsibility for Prof Mayosi's death – former Fees Must Fall leader

For a fleeting moment he was concerned that Mayosi seemed to not be drawn into the bubbly and joyous mood of a graduation ceremony, where ululations rang out.

"I just noticed that he was not catching the excitement as much as everybody. I thought: 'I'm sure it's nothing much. We'll talk during lunch'.

"Unfortunately, people with a special breed, geniuses like him, unfortunately they don't tend to live long."

He cited the death dates of musician Bob Marley who died at 36, Apple entrepreneur Steve Jobs at 56 and singer and dancer Michael Jackson at 50.

Moses Isiagi, vice-chairperson of the Post Graduate Students Council, said Mayosi arose "as a desert wildflower" during times of transformation and decolonisation.

He said Mayosi maximised his life, and showed that vulnerability was not a weakness, but a strength.

One of Mayosi's students who is now a professor, Ntobeko Nkusi, said that as a teacher he was "legendary" and helped define career paths of his students while he notched up 350 peer-reviewed papers, with more than 40 000 citations as an A-rated scientist.

Professor Martin Veller, chairperson of the SA Committee of Medical Deans said: "The possibilities lost by this young remarkable life departed are just staggering."

Professor Alison Lewis said Mayosi carried the burden of others' ambitions, goals, hopes and dreams.

"And the most poignant thing that we can learn from any hero is that we are human."

Mayosi's funeral is expected to be held on Saturday.

President Cyril Ramaphosa declared that it should be a Special Provincial Official funeral.