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The mental effects of #FeesMustFall haunt me to this day

by: Thulani Maphasa - 5 May 2017


A procession of policemen in riot gear prey up and down Prince Alfred Road in the dark, one evening at the University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR). On that same night, students gathered on the Steve Biko Union lawns to map out a strategy for the next day. A stun grenade is set off.

Students scatter in the midst of hysteria in opposing directions to seek refuge. Policemen perfectly stationed behind trees and bushes emerge, ambushing students and shooting at close range. And after the brutality of it all, in apartheid-esque style, a curfew for 10pm is issued.

“Psychological scars borne from the protests are irreversible”

The terror-stricken events of October 16 2016 came as no surprise to students because, over the past two years, the protests have been met with police brutality and increased securitisation of campuses nationwide. The police have had free reign on our campuses, and they even enter dining halls and lecture rooms.

Much of the analysis and commentary on the protests has focused on the brutality and violence that has been normalised through media representation and consumption. The normalisation has resulted in the silencing of victims of the violence. Instead of centering the victims of violence, what we have seen is a commitment to reproducing narratives and graphic images of violence that they are triggering.

Many students have and still suffer from trauma, anxiety, depression and mental illnesses because of the protests. The psychological and emotional scars borne from the protests are irreversible.

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Putting your life together after the protests is not easy on campus

For instance, I have struggled to re-socialise into ordinary day-to-day life without being triggered by a loud bang or the sight of a police officer. Flashbacks and nightmares of brutal and horrific scenes during the protests continue to haunt me. Struggle songs that once used to only empower me, now cause me great anxiety.

Getting out of the protest space after having invested energy and emotions, has proved to be very difficult. Naturally, one then finds it harder to cope with the academic expectations while nursing wounds precipitated by the protests. This has seen me miss lectures and even struggle to focus during tests and exams.

We need to do better to take care of students’ mental health

Our generation, though born into systematic violence, was not socialised from a tender age to be combative and resist state-sanctioned violence. As such, many students do not know how to deal with the post-traumatic stress of the protests.

Is it possible to minimise the trauma experienced during protests? If so, how? Student movements need to be constantly reflective and self-correcting, and this includes creating platforms where people can be educated on the side-effects of protest action. While professional mental health intervention is important, building sustained networks of support and solidarity post-protest is equally important.

The #FeesMustFall movement has been a necessary and long due introduction to South Africa’s socio-political landscape. However, with the disrupting of the status quo, which has been met with brute force, we now need to interrogate the effects this has had on our our mental health if we are to sustain the movement and ourselves.

#FeesMustFall will reignite, but I am unsure if I can afford to put my mental health at risk again.

Holding image by Sam Van Heerden

Project Demo finds the voices of young people in South Africa, amplifies their stories and turns their cause for change into a reality. Tell them your issue. They’ll take it on and campaign with you.