Yesterday, as soon as SA Medical Research Council (MRC) chair Johnny Mahlangu found out he was speaking to a journalist on the phone, he instantly hung up without so much as a “no comment”.

Even by the MRC’s recent backbone-optional standards, it seemed particularly cowardly.

As the chair of the organisation that had been asked by health minister Zweli Mkhize’s former director-general Anban Pillay to “investigate” the MRC’s CEO, Prof Glenda Gray, who had dared to publicly criticise the government’s “nonsensical and unscientific” lockdown rules, you’d think Mahlangu would realise the importance of defusing this ticking bomb.

But then, maybe he was embarrassed. It emerged yesterday that after receiving Pillay’s request, Mahlangu wrote back to him on May 22 with a “heartfelt unconditional apology on behalf of the MRC for any offence caused and embarrassment suffered as a result of the comments made by Dr Gray”.

The MRC, Mahlangu said, would conduct a “fact-finding” investigation into her remarks.

On Tuesday morning, Mahlangu’s organisation announced it had finished that investigation and “did not find transgressions” of the MRC’s policies. The matter would now be closed, it said.

Nonetheless, the MRC’s “apology” to Pillay was​ a stunningly craven act, and a window into exactly how easy it is for state-owned institutions to forget their mandate and pander to the whims of their political overlords. That Mahlangu seems more worried about causing “embarrassment” to Mkhize’s team than about inconsistencies in SA’s Covid-19 response speaks to a disturbing set of priorities.

But Mahlangu wasn’t willing to speak about it. After hanging up, he later sent a text message saying: “No comment from the MRC at this stage.”

It gets worse though. In his letter to Pillay, Mahlangu writes: “With immediate effect, [Gray] and the staff of the MRC are under strict instructions not to interface with the media until all issues relating to the public comments made by Prof Gray are resolved.”

This is all the more surprising, since just a day before, Pillay had told the FM that the department of health had no intention to gag Gray. “Nowhere in [my letter to the MRC] did I suggest that criticism should be suppressed or that professor Gray should be gagged. We only took issue with the false allegations she made,” he said.

And yet, here is the MRC’s chair, confirming in writing that not only is Gray gagged, but his board “distances itself from any negative comments made by Prof Gray associated with how the SA government has managed Covid-19”.

At the very least, you’d have to say it’s not exactly the sort of board you’d want to have your back when the chips are down.

Nor is it the sort of approach likely to lead to a socially desirable outcome. During a pandemic about which little is certain, you’d expect substantive disagreement in the scientific community to be encouraged, rather than stifled.

There is nuance to this, though. For one thing, in her statements to News24 on May 16, Gray appears to have made a mistake when she said there’d been an increase in childhood malnutrition cases at Baragwanath hospital. Mkhize, as is his right, rebuked her on this point.

However, it was Pillay’s letter to her employer which was widely interpreted as an act of unacceptable bullying.

Still, you can perhaps sympathise with Mahlangu for responding as he did. He, and his board, aren’t politicians or executives hired for their proficiency in marketing or diplomacy. They’re scientists, hired because they’re the best in the business.

Mahlangu himself, an acclaimed haematologist and the head of Wits University’s School of Pathology, has won no fewer than 22 awards – local and international. His deputy, public health specialist Linda Skaal, has won numerous research awards too.

It’s clear the board has formidable skills – but navigating politics, fragile egos and a media storm aren’t among them. Otherwise they’d realise they’ve just made it a whole lot worse for Mkhize by unwittingly entrenching the (incorrect) narrative of Gray as a lone voice, fighting against an authoritarian political system where even her board is willing to heave her under the bus at the slightest sign of trouble.

Importantly, it seems that even Pillay himself realises this isn’t the best approach.

Asked last night about whether the MRC should, in fact, be gagging its officials as the letter suggests, Pillay told the FM: “Hopefully they will lift this decision and explain their processes.”

Let’s hope so. Perhaps Mahlangu should go back and read the MRC’s mission statement: “To advance the nation’s health and quality of life and address inequity by conducting and funding relevant and responsive health research, capacity development, innovation and research translation.”

Nowhere in there does it talk about appeasing the egos of the politicians – or of protecting the health department from “embarrassment”.

As one health professor put it, Mahlangu would have been better served by saying simply: “We might not agree with her, but we’re an independent body, so we’re not going to investigate her.”

That could have defused the situation. Instead, many of the smartest medical brains in SA, who should be training their focus on tackling Covid-19, are now distracted by this soap opera.

But while Mahlangu remains mute, others in the scientific community aren’t quite so coy. First, a petition in support of Gray took off to the extent that, when it was finally closed, it had more than 320 signatories from the academic community, many of them doctors.

Yesterday another group waded in: the Academy of Science of SA, which is headed by professors Jonathan Jansen, Barney Pityana and Brenda Wingfield. While they said Mkhize was within his rights to challenge Gray’s remarks, Pillay’s action in asking the MRC for an investigation “should raise red flags in our constitutional democracy”.

“Without much subtlety, [Pillay] reminds the board chair that the MRC is ‘an entity’ of government, implying that scientists working there have no independent voice – a position that has been challenged in other statements defending the statutory independence of the MRC,” they said.

Jansen’s group said this sort of “bullying” of someone with a “history of courageous service” violates the constitutional right to academic freedom.

“To threaten researchers and to muzzle their voice would have a chilling effect on creativity, innovation and experimentation,” they say.

On Sunday President Cyril Ramaphosa did his best to defuse this row. In his speech announcing the easing of the lockdown, he said: “We appreciate the diverse and sometimes challenging views of the scientists and health professionals in our country, which stimulate public debate and enrich our response.”

As Jansen’s group put it, this is the spirit that should inform the public response to science. Not slighted egos, power plays and toxic politics.

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