The story of the experiences of the late Professor Bongani Mayosi at the hands of student activists at UCT – which, according to the Sunday Times of 5 August 2018, his sister called “the vandalisation of his soul by the #FeesMustFall students” – has reopened deep wounds which have not fully healed. Apart from Mayosi’s passing reigniting debate about a number of issues, including depression and the associated stigma, particularly in the black community, this has also brought back the debate about the treatment of staff, particularly black staff, in our institutions of higher learning.
Whether or not the #FeesMustFall movement contributed to the demise of this eminent scholar, humble giant and true epitome of black excellence, is debatable – and to be sure, there has been vibrant public discourse about this question since his death last week. But that is not what this brief reflective piece aims to focus on.
A lot has been written about the 2015/2016 period of major upheavals at our higher education institutions in South Africa. Experiences of students and student leaders are well documented – including through a brilliant play, The Fall, by UCT Drama graduates. Experiences of university vice-chancellors have also been eloquently captured in a recent book by Professor Jonathan Jansen, As By Fire: The End of the South African University. Coincidentally, Jansen has also reflected on the experiences of Mayosi and those of other university managers during the tumultuous period that we all went through.
Very little, if anything, is known about the experiences of the administrative and professional support staff at the hands of the legitimately angry, aggrieved and highly frustrated young people (mostly black) at our universities and colleges.
These administrative and professional support staff are the very individuals who are always closest to the students and closest to the fire – both figuratively and literally. I am talking specifically about the student affairs and services practitioners who, at times, go out of their way to assist students, including from their own personal resources; who provide support to incarcerated students beyond the call of duty, without making a song and dance about it; who have had to go against university rules of not supporting arrested protesting students – doing so because, despite everything that these students may or may not have done, at the end of the day, they are our young people who need us and who should still be supported and guided throughout their growth and development into adulthood.
These are individuals who have suffered in silence, who have been targeted, attacked, dehumanised, used and abused; individuals who have experienced the wrath of students at its worst, at times without understanding why.
Individuals who have found themselves between the university and students, with very little support from the university, and have borne the heaviest brunt than most people care to acknowledge.
On Sunday, 13 September 2015, just before midnight, while away at home in Pretoria on leave, I received a frantic call from the head of risk management services (what in some institutions is referred to as campus protection services) of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
From his deeply strained voice I could immediately tell that something was seriously amiss. He informed me that the university administration block had been attacked and burnt by a group of about 20 students and pleaded with me to come back. As it turned out, this was just the start as a few minutes later the risk management services building and the CCTV room were also attacked and burnt by the same group of students. I duly flew back and went to campus early the following morning on 14 September 2015.
On the night of Tuesday, 15 September 2015 at 22:25, a group of about 12 students attacked and petrol-bombed the university flat in the O-Block residence where I was temporarily residing. The university flat was burnt to ashes and the only reason I was not was because a young man who was by then the manager of student governance and leadership development, Meliqiniso Sibisi, advised me against sleeping at the university flat upon my return.
A part of me seriously considered ignoring his advice because, as I reasoned then, in my more than 15 years’ working with students, I had never had any reason to fear them – in fact, I had been in a number of extremely volatile situations, including where I had to face and address large masses of extremely angry students, single-handedly. So, I seriously had no fear at all.
But nothing could have prepared me for what was clearly a personal attack and an attempt on my life. Apart from feeling gutted, instead of being angry with the students, I was left with questions as to why would students consider me a target of such a brutal attack?
Perhaps the questions shouldn’t have arisen given the fact that there had previously been a number of inexplicable attacks, including an attack on our disability support unit offices and the burning down of one of our disability support unit vehicles we had purchased to transport students with disabilities. So, there was nothing special about the executive director for student services, who therefore would not have been spared from such attack.
Apart from dealing with the constant nightmares, the loss of some personal valuables and the inconvenience of having to use different vehicles as a safety measure, including the use of a university-rented vehicle, I have never taken time to reflect on the effects of what had happened to me – the toll that it took both on me and on my family, and neither did I attend any counselling.
Perhaps what may have assisted me is that it did not take long for me to forgive the students who had attempted to kill me, even as I was still grappling with all kinds of feelings and unanswered questions. In fact, a few days later, I was back working with the student leaders, including those that I suspected and had been reliably informed were behind the attempt on my life.
I would venture to argue that my situation, after this traumatic incident, is not unique but rather is symptomatic of the experiences of many student affairs and services practitioners at our institutions – yes, there have been instances where a number of institutions offered support to their staff, including counselling services and debriefing sessions, but for the most part, there hasn’t been concerted and systematic provision of staff wellness programmes aimed at dealing with the day-to-day challenges of administrative and professional support staff for whom the experiences of 2015/2016 was a culmination of years and years of dehumanising pain and suffering, mostly at the hands of the students.
The fact that not much is known or has been written about the painful experiences of administrative and professional support staff, is quite unfortunate – this, notwithstanding the nature and the type of work that characterises the lives of student affairs and services practitioners in our institutions, which leaves very little room for taking a step back and engaging in critical reflection.
Beyond the documenting of the experiences of student affairs and services practitioners, there is a need for critical reflection on the events of 2015/2016, with a view to extrapolating critical lessons to guide us into the future.
We need to ask ourselves whether we could have done better in the manner in which we as universities – particularly as student affairs and services practitioners – dealt with the #FeesMustFall period. Should we, perhaps have pledged greater solidarity with the students; could we have worked closely with student leaders even as we were most often targets of attacks or seen as the enemy?
Is there more that could have been done? How else could we have contributed to the legitimate student struggles for transformation and free higher education? Are there any lessons that were learnt from what transpired during the 2015/2016 period in our institutions? Did we or have we done enough to know who our students are and to develop an understanding of where they come from, what they seek and what contribution we can make towards all that?
These and other questions still require critical reflection and, perhaps most importantly, they require us to develop and design an agenda for transformation that is both responsive and forward looking. DM
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Dr Sibusiso Chalufu is the Dean of Students at the University of South Africa (Unisa) and the Deputy President of the Southern African Federation of Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education (SAFSAS). He also serves on the Universities South Africa’s (USAf) Transformation Strategy Group and on the DHET’s Reference Group on Student Funding Policy. During the Fees Must Fall period he was the Executive Director: Student Services at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
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