Existential fatigue, psycho-emotional weight and a revolt

23 March 2017

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors in their private capacity; they do not represent or reflect the views, opinions or policies of the University of Cape Town or the Communication and Marketing Department.

In this essay, alumnus and former lecturer in the Department of Psychology Dr Buhle Khanyile writes about the undercurrents that precipitated the student protests on campus in 2015.

In this essay, I would like reflect on my observations and analysis of the unspoken grievances and duress that sparked student political activism in 2015. My remarks are personal reflections and are consolidated from my experiences and reflections as a student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) between 2003 and 2012 and as a lecturer there between 2013 and 2016. I had originally intended to write these reflections at the end of 2015, but there was too much happening around me then and its echoes were still too loud in my head and heart. Three important points frame this reflection.

First, my remarks are limited to the UCT case. Second, what I have to say is drawn from the perspective and life experiences of managing my own hopes and despair and bearing witness to the contradictions, tensions, absurdities and complexities of, on the one hand, a life of lack and poverty in Black and Brown communities and schools, and on the other hand, a life of luxuries, comforts and opportunities in a white middle-class cultural and educational institution. Third, I am aware that the subject about which I write is complicated, has many stakeholders (visible and in the shadows) who hold competing professional, political and ideological agendas.

What I have to say is thus a small, but significant, piece of an evolving and living experience of people struggling over life and meaning in the world. What I have to say is not for those among us who have a restrained mental diet and can only digest lofty ideas, scientific experiments, hard data and watered-down discourse. They are, nevertheless, welcome to stay for the mental banquet.

Existential fatigue

Existential fatigue is the weight of the world on your soul, mind and emotions. A fatigue born of the search for meaning and purpose that your foremothers and forefathers returned to the soil without it wetting their dry tongues and cracked lips.

This sort of fatigue peels the fear of death from your childish eyes. It hangs you upside down and bleeds the hope, the audacity to dream, and self-confidence from the veins of your soul. This is a form of lynching that allows you to go on living insofar as you're half-dead. It blinds you with generational anger and places your feet on the red coal of your ancestors' bones.

It's the kind of fatigue that shows you the naked and grotesque difference between perception and reality and inverts your perception of reality. You are now not sure whether it is you or the world that has gone crazy. You need a new language to speak this pain, these fleeting moments of what is possible for you, these intuitive truths. They will need new eyes to hear all these things.

This fatigue is a planet that wears your body like a skin of mercury. Its density drawing you towards the exit of existence. Yet you resist and persist in your search for meaning and purpose in a world increasingly bankrupt of both. But again, the bankruptcy has been here for centuries, it is now your turn to taste its maggots.

When young men and women from Black and Brown townships enter the higher education system, they do so fatigued. They are existentially tired and many of them are unaware of this fact. Their fight has not been only to make it through the gauntlet of a desperately broken secondary education system. For these young men and women, the fight has also been waged materially, psychologically and spiritually in the wetlands of basic human survival. There is a real sense in which to survive the demands and brutalities of township life, both in their literal and symbolic forms, to the point where you are admitted into a university like UCT should be celebrated as a serious achievement in life. For thousands of young Black and Brown students, this transitional moment from high school to university, from the township to suburbia, from little hope to a tangible possibility of a better life and many other things that admission to university symbolises, marks a decisive moment in the continuation of a long history for a search for meaning and purpose in a world designed to treat and keep Black and Brown people as unwanted aliens, tools of labour, and symbolic markers of “transformation”. People who are a problem to be eliminated, an inconvenience to be tolerated, and cultural archives to be appropriated for “discoveries”.

The membrane of existential fatigue that wears black students individually and collectively is temporarily suspended in the initial weeks of university by the entertainment programmes that are intended as an introduction to university life. When the entertainment dust settles and the academic wheels are set into motion, the sense of fatigue returns in subtle ways. You sleep long hours and you still feel somewhat tired. You're in a new place and expect yourself and are expected by others to be happy but you're not quite as happy, and now you wonder whether you're being ungrateful for having made it into UCT. After all, there were many others that were competing to be admitted. All the while, the wounds and scars of township survival living itch and ache in your mind and heart. You've made it this far, but your mind, your emotions and your soul are tired.

Psycho-emotional weight

Just two weeks ago you shared a cramped up space with your siblings and cousins. Now you have a bed of your own. It feels comfortable, but the nagging feeling of the injustices of poverty that you've had to survive just to have a comfortable bed, and which still afflict your siblings and cousins, will not let you enjoy any of this comfort.

Just weeks ago you had to boil water on the stove and bath in a basin. Now you enjoy a hot or cold shower as you please. Now you're thinking, “Is this what white people have been enjoying all these years while you were tossing the bones of poverty?”

Just two weeks ago you were not always certain whether you would have food to eat. Now you have three meals a day and with each meal you wonder, with paralysing guilt, whether your family has had anything to eat today.

Just two week ago you ate your food either with a spoon or your hands. Now they have knives and forks for you as though you've been using these utensils all your life. Now you feel like an imposter in a foreign culture.

Speaking English all day every day is tiring. Thinking in English is tiring, and soon enough you will dream in English and that will be a nightmare. That is not all, you better work on your white middle-class accent, as well.

Your command of English is actually not bad at all, but for goodness sake this academic English is a different story altogether. Your comments in class and your assignments are judged against this academic English standard. Yes, there are academic support programmes and resources, yet you feel that these mark and stigmatise you as inferior, not good enough, an outsider. You feel that you have worked too hard to get here and you will not stand for the stigma even though you really could do with the help.

You encounter a black lecturer in one of your courses. You are immediately struck by excitement at this unexpected encounter. You are now entertaining high hopes that he or she will relate to you with some understanding of the excitements and predicaments that you are currently experiencing. To your shock and horror, the black lecturer is as aloof and disinterested as the other lecturers you have encountered hitherto. The hurt and sting of anger is doubly felt.

There it is – a computer in front of you for the first time this close. You approach the machine with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. Apprehension wins the race. You have no idea how to operate this device and you have just been given your first assignment. You scan the computer lab to find some of your peers running their fingers on the machine as though they've been using it since they were toddlers.

It's the weekend and your peers are going out. Now you're concerned about your unfashionable clothes, the spending money you don't have and the little social and cultural things that are new to you. These and many things plague your mind and emotions. Who among your new peers can you honestly and openly talk to about these things?

These, and many more, are the thousand and one little psycho-emotional wars that go undetected in the lives of young Black and Brown men and women. Existential fatigue is now compounded by new demands and struggles to survive academically and socially at UCT. University is not a fresh start in life but another battlefield where the fight to survive the injustices of material deprivation and structurally withheld opportunities continues. This is the psychological and emotional weight that is carried around by already overburdened bodies and minds. When I was a student at UCT, these were the pains that were initially secretly suffered individually. Over time we began to murmur these pains only among very close friends. We supported each other in the best ways we could and generally got on with the business of academia. Many fell by the way side as inevitable causalities of an institution that tolerated us but was not for us or about us. When large numbers of black students would be academically excluded at the end of their first academic year, it was called a “revolving door syndrome” – in in February and out in November. Goodbye; go try your luck elsewhere.

People would talk about the “revolving door syndrome” as if it was the weather. In actuality, it was a symptom of an institution that had not seriously thought about and planned for the academic, social and emotional challenges that would confront students who are not raised in white middle-class homes, schools and communities. In actuality, the “revolving door syndrome” was the brutality of a system that took you in, chewed you up and spat you out. In its defense, the university could genuinely argue that it had attempted to support Black and Brown students from poor communities since there were in place academic support structures. Our problems, though, ran deeper and were, in the main, not academic but manifested themselves in poor academic performance. Our problem, our pain, our silent suffering were the psychological, emotional and social issues that cut at our hearts and minds like little pieces of broken glass.

Even as early as 2003, in my first year at UCT, there were already rumblings of disgruntlement among Black and Brown students at what was perceived as “all talk and no action” in matters of real transformation at UCT. By “real” was meant change that qualitatively changed the experience of university life for Black and Brown students at UCT. However, even then we never quite raised the psychological, emotional and social issues that churned in our hearts, bled our souls, and tormented our minds. I imagine that this was too risky for a student body already feeling vulnerable and grudgingly tolerated by the institution. We were also still a relatively small number then. Instead, we skirted around the issues by identifying projects that were legitimate enough within the context of the university for us to raise under the banner of “transformation”. Although these projects were indeed important as gestures of transformation, they were, in my view, secondary and cosmetic issues in relationship to things that nailed us to the cross every day. These projects were important nonetheless because they allowed us to transfer some of the hurt, alienation, anger and sometimes despair of being invisible in the symbols, culture, language, priorities and imagination of the university. For instance, I recall that between 2004 and 2005 there was the issue of the renaming of the Student Development and Services Department (SDSD) Building to the Steve Biko Building. This matter, in the fashion of UCT, dragged on for months on end. In the process, which sometimes appeared as though the university was playing hide-and-go-seek with the Students' Representative Council (SRC), the matter increasingly got politicised. Nqobizitha Mlilo, then the SRC president, increasingly became vocal, political and angry in his dealings with university management. This is a crucial point to underline and understand in the student activism that resurfaced in 2015. Even the then Vice-Chancellor acknowledged that the process for renaming the building had been rather slow.

A revolt

That moment when Chumani Maxwele bathed the Cecil John Rhodes statue with human waste was a culminating point of the many years and numerous attempts by generations of Black and Brown student to signal to the university that its transformation efforts were not transforming their lives. I do not know what was going through Chumani's mind leading up to and at the moment he covered the statue with human waste. I understood his conduct as a symbolic gesture not only about the challenges that Black and Brown students confronted every day at the university but the long histories of Black and Brown people struggling against the odds to be seen, heard, valued, dignified and to belong in a country of their birth. Cecil Rhodes represented that long lineage of Black and Brown hatred and oppression that effectively said to Black and Brown people, “You are not only full of shit but you are shit and we will treat you like shit.” In spite of the university's well-meaning mission statements on transformation, far too many Black and Brown students felt like shit within the university every day. The quickness with which Black and Brown academic staff threw their weight, and sometimes to a fault, behind the students is because they knew the feeling all too well.

In the face of what now appears to be a student revolt, we must come to understand a few things which, perhaps, may help the UCT community to think about its current situation differently and to plan for qualitative transformation.

First, what exploded in 2015 has been coming for a long time at UCT. Much of this could have been avoided if the university leadership and directors (both the visible and the invisible) were not bent on preserving the original culture and ethos of the university as though 1994 never happened. Second, the university speaks the politically correct language of transformation but practices incremental reform in almost all aspects of the institution's life. Third, where transformative measures have been taken, these have largely been within the purview of white middle-class concerns, fears, hopes, imaginations and interests. It is this that has led to cosmetic reform that does not rock the boat of white comfort. Does transformation not mean the desire to create something new that does not yet exist? If so, then we too must struggle towards becoming the kinds of human beings that will exemplify and be compatible with the institutional changes we claim we desire. This is the psychological, emotional and social resistance to change in the minds and hearts of some white people at UCT and in this country that is one of the stumbling blocks to qualitative transformation. For centuries, black people in this country have been altered, molded, transformed, destroyed, and reinvented at the will power of white social, political, economic, psychological, religious and cultural projects. Existential fatigue is a result of having survived, against all odds, all these perversions and evils.

Still, the university today will play language games and hide behind archaic procedures to avoid the slightest inconvenience and discomfort to change. It is, once again, Black and Brown students who must bend and fit into the mould of the university that speaks transformation during the day and is hard at work at night to ensure it remains unchanged. If this is not true, let the university name three significant transformation efforts that it has taken since 1994 without being coerced and badgered by students, Black and Brown staff, workers, or situations that have turned dire because they were being ignored or reactively handled. Fourth, the number of Black and Brown students at UCT has reached a critical mass and this means that students can now easily mobilise and politicise themselves into action around the issues that concern them. However, it does not seem that students are about to table their pressing concerns and pains to an institution that they sense and intuitively know does not care about them very much, if at all. So collective and political projects – Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall – are once again identified and selected as strategic points of mobilisation for what is fundamentally a call for the university to see, hear and treat poor Black and Brown students as human beings who need psychological, emotional and social support to transition into and thrive within the university. Even if Rhodes has fallen, education is free, and the curriculum has been creatively and critically redesigned – all these things will only matter if the individual and collective experience of life for Black and Brown students is markedly changed socially, psychologically and emotionally. Fifth, the manner in which the university leadership has responded to the student activism has seriously aggravated matters. There are many reasons for this, which I do not have the luxury of space to outline here. I will, however, briefly point out two. On the one hand, the university was completely blindsided in 2015 despite the fact that the rumblings had been going on for some years. This is partly because the institution is, quite frankly, self-absorbed. On the other hand, the university has not fared well in responding to the student activism due to the leadership style, practices and character faults of the Vice-Chancellor. When an institution priorities hype over substance, its interventions become impotent and cosmetic. When institutional interventions are coloured by personalities and their needs rather than strategic and tactical interventions that secure the integrity of, and confidence in, the institution in the short-term, while working out the mechanics of a long-term sustainable solution, the result is the current state of affairs at the UCT.

Meanwhile, a new cohort of Black and Brown students has entered the university and some of them bring years of existential fatigue and psycho-emotional weight. They will find the ground fertile for continued student activism that is revolting against the pains of being unseen, unheard, unwanted and disposable through the “revolving door”. Perhaps this year the UCT community and especially its leaders and managers will adopt a new vision and creative and bold strategies that will restore calm and confidence in the community while wasting no time in exploring new opportunities in the face of the challenges that confront the university. Crucial among these opportunities is how UCT can transform itself into an institution that genuinely cares for and supports all the human beings that make it what it is.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.