Last year in UCT, and this year at Wits, I found myself on the outside of both the Rhodes Must Fall and the Fees Must Fall movements. As a humanities student, I saw the protests as a tangible manifestation of the theories we grappled with in class. Yet I chose not to attend mass meetings and agitate for action from the university authorities.
I am the type of person who just walks away when the cashier gives me the wrong change
On any given day, I experience this underlying stress that determines my mood and affects my interactions with people. I am always just a little bit scared or worried, so any small disturbance – being late for an appointment, getting caught in the rain without an umbrella, or having to deal with a nosy security guard– makes me anxious.
I feel like I have lost control of the situation, and it takes some time for me to get back to “normal”. I’m the type of person who just walks away when the cashier gives me the wrong change, and if a waiter’s service is bad I always think maybe they are having a tough day.
The protests required more than I could give
This is why, when I realised that the protests required me to actively participate, to give my all, I knew that I could not be involved. I didn’t have the emotional energy to spend marching, singing, or running with the students. At UCT last year, I watched as the statue of Rhodes fell through a window in my lecture room.
This year, instead of attending Wits mass meetings at Solomon Mahlangu House, I stayed at res. From my room, I could see the crowds marching onto campus. I could also hear the blaring sirens of police cars, the shots ringing out, the singing and shouting of students who were in confrontations with police down on Jan Smuts Avenue.
Someone used me as a human shield at the McDonald’s
I will not forget October 10 2016, when I was at McDonald’s getting lunch and a hippo drove up Jorissen Street in Braamfontein. The police officers inside were shooting rubber bullets out into the street. A girl who was standing next to me grabbed me and hid behind me. I was scared, I couldn’t believe I was in a situation where a stranger was using me as a shield. I felt a mix of fear and resentment.
2016 really was the year of realising things
Being a university student during the time of Fallist movements has led me to realise some important things about myself and about how the world works. During both rounds of protests, I found the conversations about human rights, history, privilege and intersectionality very heavy and necessary.
Suddenly it felt like everything I thought I knew about myself and the world was not true. Of course, I understand the need for the movement. I am aware of how my parents have sacrificed to pay for my education – a right that should be accessible to all citizens. It definitely does matter that the curriculum and the teachers are representative of the students as well.
It’s absolutely important to address the exclusive nature of structures that ignore the needs and experiences of students who are poor, black, queer and disabled. But I don’t think this has to be at the expense of my mental health.
I avoided the protests because I felt like that was where I would be able to have the most control. If the protests pick up again next year, I will choose the same way, because I do not believe in hurting myself in the name of a cause.
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