We need to talk about the long-term effects of FMF on students’ mental health

The effects of Fees Must Fall (FMF) protests are long-lasting and damaging to students’ mental health and ultimately affect their academic performance.

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) launched two documents: Student Protests: A Legal and Practical Guide and A Double Harm: Police Misuse of Force and Barriers to Necessary Health Care Services on Tuesday. The launch was held at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, next to the University of the Witwatersrand.

Speaking at the event, students from the university spoke about the challenges they faced a year after the 2016 protests.

Shaeera Kalla, a leader of FMF in 2016, who was shot in the back by police with rubber bullets, said she did not return to do her masters because she was triggered by her experiences. “Being at Wits is triggering, I didn’t come back to complete my masters this year and many students aren’t in that position where they can actually have the privilege of not coming back to this university,” she said.

Medical student Mtwakazi Bula, who was a first aid volunteer during the protests, said the ramifications for students live on. “A lot of students currently suffering from post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] where students described having flashbacks, students who are talking about how even at New Year’s [Eve] they couldn’t go outside and enjoy the festivities because the sounds were triggering,” she said.

She said some students can’t come onto campus now because of the presence of private security. “You can’t tell your lecturer ‘I’m sorry I’m not coming, I’m triggered’, you have to bring your doctor’s letter,” she said.

Wits anthropology lecturer Kelly Gillespie said the number of students she sees who cannot come onto campus because of PTSD “feels like a pandemic”. “It is difficult to know how to confront it because it seems so massive and it’s very clear to see that the police presence on campus escalated it,” she said.

She said the reason the vice chancellor’s office gave for having police on campus was to finish the academic year because there was a very clear political argument that they should not be casual about students finishing their academic degrees. “What is important for us is to continue to show that the long-term effects has interrupted many black students’ degrees and progress precisely because of the trauma that has occurred on campus,” she said.

Commenting on A Double Harm, one of the authors of Seri’s protest guide, Tim Fish Hodgson said there is now evidence that the university knew how students were being affected. “We are not sitting next to a campus where everybody is trying to protect students; we’re sitting next to a campus where people are willingly interested in violating students’ rights and allowing that to continue to exist,” he said.

Featured image by Yeshiel Panchia