Trigger Warnings: death, gender-based abuse, damage
Over the course of the last three years, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has experienced a myriad of unfortunate events. I started my first year of university in 2019, the year the world mourned the loss of Uyinene Mrwetyana at the hands of gender-based violence. Then came my second year with the COVID-19 pandemic that swept over the entire country in a matter of weeks. Recently, there was the fire that enveloped some important historical landmarks and resources on campus. One almost thinks that the university experience is meant to be unsettling, a time of growth, reflection and mobilization that cannot be afforded to any other period in one’s life.
This of course does not serve to belittle the suffering of people during these extreme events. The experiences of gender-based violence, online learning during a pandemic and surviving a fire are devastating events that nobody should have the misfortune of experiencing. However, it cannot be denied that students are almost always resilient in the face of struggle and have been some of the main drivers of change from the age of apartheid into the birth of the new nation. Other students seemed to agree with me (names have been omitted due to privacy and anonymity):
“I remember the day that we found out about Uyinene on campus. Everyone was silent, so many of us were on the plaza in complete shock, trying to process the pain. When you hurt one of us, you hurt all of us.”
Second Year, Science Faculty
“Learning during a pandemic has not been a walk in the park, so to speak. The professors [and students alike] have had to completely restructure the way we learn. Wi-Fi problems, submission issues and a lack of student-lecturer interaction has all been terrible for the university experience, especially when you’re just starting out.”
First Year, Humanities Faculty
“I lost my laptop in the fire. I lost precious family photos, was unsure about where I would spend the night. The worst part was I wasn’t the only one.”
Third Year, Humanities Faculty
Along with students and their possessions being displaced by the fires, UCT lost thousands of precious documents in the Jagger Library, known for its Special Collections and African Studies Archives. People took to Twitter to express their dismay.
We should also remember that these terrible instances are not a singular experience. Before the gender-based violence protests, there was the Fees Must Fall Movement. Before that, it was the struggle against apartheid. Nonetheless, students have persevered. They fought, pushed, tweeted and posted until desegregation was achieved, statues were removed, places were renamed and repairs were in progress. Students are not just subject to change. They ARE change itself.
Throughout my three years at UCT, I have learned that the university experience is never meant to be “normal”. Instead, your time at university should be a time of dynamism, a time of intellectual and emotional growth that brings about change for the better.