UCT culture leaves some suicidal

A report by the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission at the University of Cape Town (UCT) reveals how black students at the university experience a hostile, unsupportive and alienating culture in certain departments. Tellingly, it also reveals how academic pressures and exclusion has left other students feeling suicidal.

Junior academics spoke of experiencing mental health challenges because of the bigger workload they are expected to carry when teaching undergraduates. Black academics revealed how they experienced subtle racism and were discriminated against and how this affected them emotionally and mentally.

The university established the commission last February to address unresolved tensions on campus after student protests, which began with #RhodesMustFall in 2015. This was followed by #Shackville, where students erected a shack on the university’s busy Residence Road (to highlight housing shortages) and burned artworks to protest against colonial symbolism on campus.

The commission was meant to be the university’s version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), with the aim of helping the institution identify where it failed to transform and how outstanding disciplinary processes against students could be reconciled.

The commission, chaired by former science and technology minister Mosibudi Mangena, released its report in March. Other commission members included former TRC commissioner Yasmin Sooka, former Constitutional Court Justice Zak Yacoob, gender rights activist Yvette Abrahams and violence and reconciliation researcher Malose Langa.

In the report, students cited academic pressure, poor academic scores, lack of support from university structures and inadequate mental health services as problems they face. Some students said “long-standing feelings of suicidal ideation” were as a result of academic pressure.

An undergraduate science student, who suffers from chronic depression, made a submission about wanting to press a button to make the world stop and had gone to Devil’s Peak to think about jumping off.

The report warned: “A constantly expressed view that the reason for black students leaving the university in body bags, due to the high rate of suicide, was because of a racist institutional culture, unreasonable academic demands and the alienating environment.”

The students, according to the report, also bemoaned how the university was willing to pay millions for private security during protests but only had four psychologists to attend to 27 000 students, some of whom had serious mental health issues.

Academics complained that they too were affected by mental health challenges as a result of increases in student numbers — leading to some having to teach large classes, which meant increased workloads in test scripts, essays and exams that must be marked in a short period of time.

They commented on how the university only seems to care about the mental health of students; saying there is a lack of counselling services for academics and support staff.

Junior academics, quoted in the report, said the disparity in workload between them and their academic seniors was causing major stress.

“Some junior staff members also said they struggled to progress in academia and be promoted to senior levels due to lack of time to engage in research activities and publish articles in accredited journals.”

The commission recommended UCT make available appropriate mental health services to all staff and students who need them. It also recommended that the eight students who were part of the #Shackville protest be given amnesty by the university.

The report does not name the students.

It lists their offences, which include transporting a container of petrol and tyres on to one of the campuses; defacing and burning paintings and other items from Fuller Hall, threatening staff and preventing them from doing their jobs.

The university council has agreed to expunge the students’ records of all the offences that they pleaded to. This would help them to graduate, be able to study elsewhere and pursue their careers without a cloud hanging over them.

The commission also requested that the university drop criminal charges laid against two students that had been given amnesty.

The spokesperson for UCT, Elijah Mohololo, told the Mail & Guardian this week that the steering committee, established with the commission and comprising various constituencies of the university, is expected to engage its constituencies over the next three months about the report and make final recommendations to the institution’s council in June.

He added, however, that the university executive also noted the findings and recommendations of the report and awaits the steering committee’s final recommendations. He said the executive was also going through the report and will make its own responses to the issues raised.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.
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