Campus protest trauma 'the new normal'
Cape Town - Universities are often portrayed as places of considered debate, and learning.
But for students and staff in many South African institutions, university life has become frightening and unpredictable, even dangerous at times.
Petrol bombs have been thrown into auditoriums, student shuttle buses torched, and cat and mouse games between police and protesters take place to the sound of stun grenades booming in the background.
And as the battles continue, and police vans and Nyala armoured vehicles become the "new normal" on campus, it is not just the students who are traumatised and confused, but also the staff.
"It is not just the usual work stress, but emotional stress," said National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) spokesperson Jako Nel.
"The staff are caught between logic and understanding the funding situation, and the violence of some of the protests," he said.
For some, it brings back the trauma of apartheid-era clashes with police, as armoured vehicles and rows of police vehicles park on campus, and for others, their are fears of increasing militarisation of academic spaces.
Trauma and fear
But Nel said that the lecturers tell the union that in spite of the difficulties, the students are saying they just want to finish their course, graduate, start work, and put the whole traumatic experience behind them.
But, to do that, they have to get through exams and assessments, and in spite of the trauma and the fear, the lecturers have figured out how to work around it, to make sure the students graduate.
When the #FeesMustFall protests of 2015 saw the end of year exams abandoned at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), students wrote exams in January 2016 at a military base.
Some lecturers, according to Nel, have figured out secret ways to work around it for the students so that their marks and assessments are not affected and that they can finish this year.
"The majority of the students just want to finish and they just want to move on with their lives. They know that to better their lives, only one thing counts, and that is to get that degree," said Nel.
The lecturers have set up WhatsApp groups to arrange secret off-campus exams and lectures, sometimes with the assistance of local authorities who provide a venue such as a public library.
The lecturers arrange the transport and tell the students to be at a particular pick up point, such as a local church or landmark, and the students only know the venue when they get there, in case somebody leaks it ahead of the exam.
"That shows that tertiary education among our members is a human business, it is not just a big machine grinding out products," said Nel.
Other lecturers, moved by the suffering that some of the very poor students endure, have arranged small craft projects among themselves to sell items to raise money for a student. Deans have also started special funds to help tide some over.
Khaya Xaba, spokesperson for the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) in the Western Cape, is furious that the situation on campus is still so risky for staff and students.
"Workers are worried and want the situation back to normality," he said.
Xaba said one security guard was almost set alight in his own guard house by protesters.
He was rescued and is fine, but the incident traumatised staff, Xaba said.
The union implored CPUT, which is having the most issues at present, to deal with the situation urgently, especially since protests increased ahead of the Student Representative Council elections on some of its campuses.
One of the reasons for the ongoing protests at CPUT, according to Xaba, is the way guards, caterers and cleaners are being moved off the books of labour brokers and onto the university's payroll.
Stopping outsourcing was a key demand countrywide during #FeesMustFall. However, Xaba said that CPUT hurried it through without properly consulting the union as required. Nehawu wants an urgent meeting next week with the institution to raise this.
As a result, employees were not happy with their pay and many walked out, including security guards, leaving the campus vulnerable again.
Meanwhile, questions have been raised over CPUT's arrangements to prevent further damage and trauma after police said 28 private guards it had hired were arrested on September 13 for not being registered with the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA). They also allegedly had fraudulent credentials.
When asked why the university had not checked the security guards' credentials, given escalating security risks and the students' and staff's safety fears, Kansley said the onus was on ProEvents, a contractor they used, to make sure these requirements were met.
ProEvents owner Edward Beeka told News24 his company did not have any of its own guards there because it could not muster enough for the emergency deployment to the campus.
Instead, it had subcontracted two other companies, and according to Beeka, the onus was on them to make sure their guards' paperwork was up to date.
The first company, Vetus Schola's John Maxwell said that none of his guards was arrested.
The second company, Forefront Security admitted that 11 of their guards had not renewed their registrations. Kansley said that contrary to the police saying 28 had been arrested, it was only 17. There was no explanation for the discrepancy with the numbers.
National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Eric Ntabazalila said the guards were all released without being charged, and the investigation continues.
Meanwhile, counselling for traumatised staff and students has also now become a feature of university life, either through informal gatherings by students, or professional counselling.
For example, Wits University, which saw running battles between police and protesters spill into the streets, created a web page for staff and students to help identify some of the symptoms of stress and trauma related to the protests.
"Keep in mind that counselling is recommended if you are not able to study; if you find yourself unable to cope with your daily activities; if your symptoms are still severe and ongoing; and/or if you find yourself turning to inappropriate sources of comfort, like drugs or alcohol," advised Wits.