It was in 2015 during the Fees Must Fall protests when I was greeted by graffiti slashed across the walls of one of the entrances at Wits University. The graffiti written in red spraypaint by a group called BlackThought read ‘we can no longer breathe in this university’. It became clear to me that the protests were about much more than just a struggle for free education, students were protesting for something much deeper. Black students were lamenting that they feel excluded and alienated in a place that is supposed to give them an education. They were lamenting that in Wits University they are always reminded of their blackness and by implication their un-wantedness. This is why the call quickly shifted from just free education to a decolonized education. Decolonization entails a complete obliteration of everything that seeks to make black people aliens in their country of birth. When students made a call to decolonize the university they were calling for a complete change in the ways in which teaching and learning is understood and conducted at Wits. They were calling for a reorganization of the entire structure and functioning of the university in such a way that it accommodates black people.
When the students said that they can no longer breathe in the university it wasn’t just a metaphorical statement, they meant it quite literally. In the first semester of 2018 there have allegedly been three cases of students who have committed suicide at Wits University. These cases are not novel, Wits has the highest rates of suicide among the universities in South Africa. In 2017 two suicides were reported in two months. In October a 19 year old Kago Moeng jumped of a building and in November a decomposing body of a student was found in one of the storerooms of the university. In 2012 two students and a lecture committed suicide. From 2000 to 2018 there have been approximately 20 cases of suicide. The cases could very well be twice as much if one considers cases which are not reported in the media. These statistics also exclude students who attempt to commit suicide. What these statistics point to is that there is a mental health crisis at Wits University. The private mental health care Akeso which is situated in Parktown says that two thirds of its patients who get admitted are from Wits University. Akeso is a private centre and that means there are many other students who need these facilities but who cannot afford them. This is a serious problem.
What is sickening is the university’s complacency in the manner in which it has been dealing with this crises. The university has been completely passive. Their responses to this crisis have been no more than sending emails to students telling them about the availability of counselling services or putting up a billboard in one of the entrances saying mental health matters. In the recent suicide case the university did not even call it a suicide. They stated that a student fell from a building. The tone of the email suggested that the university was distancing itself from the occurrence. This is typical of a university such Wits University where the lives of black students do not matter. It is not long ago when Wits sanctioned the police to shoot at us when we protested against structural racism at the university. Students were arrested and suspended for calling for a change in the curriculum and methods of teaching and learning because the current methods were designed to exclude them. Wits University silenced us through terror and extreme violence when we fighting for our lives, the very essence of our being as black students.
Wits University is implicated, if not directly responsible for these suicides by refusing to acknowledge and change the conditions which cause students to kill themselves. See, if we continue calling these deaths suicides without qualification then the victim, the deceased, becomes solely responsible for his/her own death. This kind of logic erases the many other factors that contribute to these deaths. The implication is that Wits is exonerated from liability. This is to say that Wits must necessarily take responsibility for creating and intentionally maintaining the conditions that cause students to kill themselves. Wits University is the conditio sine qua non of these deaths. There is power in calling things what they really are and what they represent. Euphemisms have a way of obscuring the truth. These deaths are murderous acts by a university that refuses acknowledge that the way it is structured suffocates black students. Adam Habib and his entire regime are responsible for maintaining and running a university that kills black students.
There are undoubtedly many reasons why students commit suicide but in most of the reported cases Wits University is implicated in one way or the other. Wits University has presented itself as a university where all the intelligent students study. It is hell-bent on maintaining this reputation even if it comes at the expense of the lives of students. This has created an idea amongst students that if they are not able to cope academically it is because they do not belong. This has become so commonly known that there is even an adage that says ‘it is either you fall of the edge or you conquer the edge’. This comes from the Wits slogan ‘Wits gives you the edge’. It literally does because students are jumping off buildings. What is problematic about this thinking is that it burdens the students, it offers no room to critique the ways in which learning happens at Wits. It hides the fact that the university classroom has not changed, learning still happens in the ways in which it happened during apartheid. The exorbitant fees that have to be paid by students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds contribute to the pressure that students face. Students go through extreme extents and sacrifices to be able to study at Wits University not knowing that the university is still structured in a way that sets black people up for failure. When students eventually fail they attribute this to their own inadequacies. Comments by those who were close to the students point to the fact that prior to the death students complained either of academic pressure, losing a bursary or being too embarrassed that they have failed.
I am not interested in being objective about this matter. That is impossible because the issue is one that is extremely personal for me as a student at Wits University. No survey needs to be conducted, the large number of students who participated in the Fees Must Fall protests point to the fact that there is a shared sentiment by black students of feelings of unbelonging and alienation. It is not just in the lecturers, architecture, curriculum, administrators. No; it is because the entire structure of Wits University is a racist structure. To be at Wits University as a black student is a traumatic experience that induces psychosis and that is why there are so many students suffering from mental health. We as students have an important role to play. We have a duty to all the students who suffer from mental health because of this Nazi university, and to all those who have been lynched and suffocated by the racism at Wits to fight. We must bring back the conversation of decolonization with the intention to see to it that our demands are implemented. We cannot allow Wits University under the administration of Habib Adam to get away with murder.
*** Mcebo Dlamini is a former president of the Wits SRC and an activist.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vernac News.