/ 18 January 2023

Cancel culture among the youth a contributor to suicide

Kai Singiswa
Bullied into taking his own life: Kai Singiswa (14.09.1999 - 01.12.2019) was a victim of cancel culture. (Self portrait by Kai Singiswa)

It is that time of the year when many youths are registering to enter university for the first time, excited about their journey into early adulthood, the prospect of meeting new peers, widening their knowledge and partying.

To prepare youngsters for this new environment many parents have the necessary
drugs and safe-sex talk with their kids. But there is another danger lurking on campuses that is often overlooked and that is cancel culture. Certainly, this was furthest from my mind when my son, Kai Singiswa, entered university in 2018.

I have a vivid memory of the day Kai left our home to register at Wits. His joy was
palpable. Straight out of school, he had decided on a career that followed our path as filmmakers. He loved campus life and soon became part of a wide circle of popular kids.

The next two years of his life were spent imbibing knowledge, making short films on
youth culture and partying at trendy venues in Johannesburg. He was well-liked for his fun-loving, warm and empathetic nature. His marks were good and he showed real talent in his chosen field.

But at the end of the second year at Wits Kai took his own life. The shock of this sudden loss of our only son was excruciating, and we could not fathom how our beautiful boy, a popular kid brimming with enthusiasm for life, could be pushed to make the radical decision to end it.

After Kai’s suicide his close friends came forward to tell us of the circumstances that had led him to this decision. This is when we came to know that Kai had been at the
receiving end of a cancel campaign orchestrated by Wits peers closest to him.

In this campaign he was profiled as a drug addled abuser of women. The source of
this reputational onslaught was allegedly a close male friend of Kai’s, after a physical
fight between the two of them. This fight occurred in a car where Kai was playing a
tapping game on his own legs and the legs of two female friends sitting with him in
the back seat. The girls were irritated and told him to stop. When he did not stop in
time, his friend turned around from the front seat and punched Kai in the face. (In an interview with his friend, he confirmed that he had punched Kai in the face.)

An eyewitness says that Kai fought back, and the fight escalated, with his friend
steadily trying to get at Kai over the seat. The eyewitness told us that Kai was not
being violent in his playfulness and that the only violence that occurred was between
himself and the friend who had punched him.

In the aftermath of this fight his friend’s girlfriend, who was sitting closest to Kai in the back seat, purportedly circulated a picture of a bruise on her leg, alleging that Kai had willfully attacked her. To date no one we have interviewed has seen the
photograph and all say that they have only heard about it.

The eyewitness says that if there were a bruise it could only have mistakenly
happened when the fight in the car ensued and could easily have been a result of his
friend trying to get at Kai from the front seat. Despite the fact that Kai did not throw
the first punch he reached out to his friends to make amends, feeling genuine
remorse for his role in the fight. Most accepted his apology, but his friend was
adamant that he was the wronged party and rejected Kai’s overtures to discuss the

Two months later his friend’s girlfriend lodged a complaint at @KopJhb on the
afternoon that Kai was studiously getting his film equipment ready to go and film their event, as he often did. In her complaint she alleged that Kai had hit her with a baton and that she would not feel safe with him being at the same venue as her. The two youngsters who own @KopJhb banned Kai from their event despite the fact that they had knowledge that Kai and the accuser had met and communicated positively in various venues during the two months leading up to their banning of him. They did not bother to investigate the complaint but made their decision based on hearsay. In a meeting that we called with them after Kai’s suicide, they admitted that they did not have all the facts and had perhaps acted hastily. None of this would bring back our son.

Kai had undergone immense emotional and psychological distress at being labeled
an abuser of women. He was well known to be a supporter of women’s right and
many of his female friends said he was one of the few of their male peers whom they could turn to when experiencing sexual assault or abuse.

The tragedy of Kai’s suicide lies in the fact that the fight was a matter that could
easily have been sorted out between the friends involved, especially in the light of
Kai’s remorse. Instead, it was turned into a mammoth nightmare for him – one so
unbearable that he saw suicide as the only way out of his pain. You can read the full
account here

As parents who work from home and had ongoing open communication with our son, we were mystified as to why Kai had not spoken to us about his two-month ordeal. It was through my ongoing research on cancel culture and its impact on the youth that I began to understand the intense shame and isolation teens experience when being accused of a heinous act that does not reflect who they know themselves to be. I also came to understand that the societal normalisation of cancel culture tacitly gives the youth the permission to bypass empathy and forgiveness in favour of righteous anger. Few who cancel are held accountable for the devastating fallout of their behaviours.

Understanding Cancel culture.

In the words of Professor Rozena Maart: “Cancel Culture has become central to the
discourse of the youth in 21st Century society as part of counterculture, steeped in
the rhetoric of #FeesMustFall, where young people strategically plan the fall of their
peers. The idea is that if you do something that others deem problematic – notably a strategic person in the group with enough credentials as someone who has suffered at the hands of patriarchy, real or imagined, instigates this. You automatically lose all your currency. Your voice is silenced. Your ‘fall’ is planned, systematically. You are then labelled an oppressor and parallels are drawn to your behaviour and that of the common, much reviled acts of oppression – be this racism, sexism or patriarchal oppression, even coloniality.”

This is often performed on social media platforms and in the form of group shaming,
with the purpose that the shunning will start as the first form of punishment. A
shunning involves cutting off your sources of communication with your peers and
groups so that you are alone with the lies, insults and accusations that have been
hurled against you. You are left powerless and gagged as you watch yourself being
profiled as a criminal while your reputation is left in tatters. Cancel culture removes
all options for anyone to learn from their mistakes and it alienates the recipients to
the point of breakdown and sometimes suicide.

An article on the Newport Academy site points out that: “when it comes to
teenage/youth cancel culture, the negative mental health effects outweigh the
positives because teens are still forming their identities and their beliefs, and they
need to be able to learn from their mistakes rather than being punished. For many
teens, cancellation is the worst punishment imaginable, because rejection by their
peer group is their biggest fear. “

They go on to say: “…cancellation in high school/university isn’t just a teaching
moment; it’s a harsh punishment and public shaming. And it’s especially damaging
because this age group is so sensitive to the opinions of their peers. As a result,
being socially ostracized, at an age when peer connections are incredibly
important, can be devastating. Many therapists report treating teen clients who
suffered from depression, anxiety, and suicidality for months after being cancelled by peers. Teens who experience this may struggle for years to trust themselves, to trust others, and to feel a sense of belonging in a peer group.”

It is for this reason that I urge parents to use Kai’s story as a learning moment and to engage their children on the matter of the cancel culture that continues to thrive on campuses across South Africa – a pandemic that any youngster at any time could
become victim to. Mostly I urge parents to ask their children to let them know if this
ever happens to them, no matter how shamed they feel, so that they can provide the support and action required of them to help them navigate this treacherous terrain – as well as prevent the very real possibility of mental break down or suicide.

Gillian Schutte is a feminist, writer, independent filmmaker and social justice activist.

You can call the Childline South Africa 24-hour helpline at no cost on 116, or you can visit the online counselling chat rooms at childlinesa.org.za/status, which are staffed from Monday to Friday, 11am to 1pm and 2pm to 6pm. Or go to Child Welfare at childwelfaresa.org.za to find the nearest child-support organisation in your province. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group can be contacted on 0800 121 314 or send an SMS to 32312 and a counsellor will call you back.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.