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University students cry for help as load shedding harms their mental and emotional states

Load shedding leaves university students in the dark emotionally. (File Photo.)
Written by Anna Southwell

“We have built a high propensity for dealing with pressure, and we can withstand so much,” says Thema. “But that’s a problem because we shouldn’t have to.”

Although most universities already have protocols to deal with load shedding – given that this has been going on since 2008 – the increased blackouts this year have delivered a blow to the wellbeing and safety of the student population. 

Read in Daily Maverick: Load shedding is adding to the anxiety, depression and mental health toll among South Africans

It is a pervasive issue that impacts all students, staff and faculties, but it disproportionately harms students. Load shedding is an inconvenience at best for the privileged but a “traumatic, detrimental” experience for the underprivileged, says Thema.

Universities have made efforts to implement measures to assist and support students during load shedding, but some students believe that much more needs to be done.

“It is an important time in the academic year, and the university leadership’s approach will remain flexible and sensitive as more measures are put in place to successfully complete the academic year as planned,” said Elijah Moholola, spokesperson for the University of Cape Town, in a statement.

Measures taken by UCT include plans to extend the list of venues on campus with available, accessible space and back-up power to provide more study locations. And on 19 September, more UCT shuttle buses were added into service to transport students to parts of the campus that have connectivity.

However, these recent steps are “not nearly enough” in the eyes of UCT’s Student Representative Council.

‘We are demanding more’

Siya Plaatjies, a student at UCT and acting president of the SRC, said the student body is not only frustrated with the government for letting the energy crisis get to this point but also with UCT for “not being proactive to be ahead of the crisis” and for not listening to students’ concerns.

During the pandemic, UCT handed out set amounts of data to students per month because many did not have access to data or wifi off campus. 

But now that students have fully returned to taking classes in person this semester, the university has halted the data provision system for those who have returned to campus. 

However, many areas on campus still do not have stable wifi connections due to load shedding. And “maintenance days” – scheduled or unscheduled – will often shut down available wifi in the middle of class.

Plaatjies says students often rush to campus early in the morning to get to the library, which has the most stable wifi connection, to complete their assignments before class. When the library is full, many students have to sit outside the building trying to pick up the signal.

“The university seems to have taken a fiscally conscious approach, not providing enough resources and support to students and not hiring enough staff,” says Plaatjies. “It is not meeting the needs of the student population.”

‘Emotional trauma’

The crisis places “immense logistical pressure” on students, particularly those who are disadvantaged, says Plaatjies. 

“I know underprivileged students who have to spend their money on transport to make it to campus, and for food in the morning, only to arrive on campus to find their class suddenly cancelled due to load shedding and connectivity issues,” she says.

She feels the university still expects students to perform to their full potential. Deadlines are often not flexible, and students are told to “plan ahead” as exam season approaches.

“They (the university) are neglecting the fact that the learning environment has drastically changed with regard to load shedding. We don’t have the resources or capacity to show up in the way that is being demanded of us.”

It is not an environment that is conducive for students to even show up, she explains.

Over at Wits University, Thema echoes these sentiments, saying load shedding causes “self-esteem issues” among many students who cannot obtain “basic human decencies” such as showering or making food in their residencies off campus. They come to class with hygiene problems, unable to concentrate.

Thema says students need the university to perhaps extend the academic calendar this year by a couple of weeks to allow more time to complete exams and assignments. The effort it takes to succeed academically in this environment causes “emotional trauma”, and stress levels are at an all-time high, Plaatjies adds. 

Safety concerns

Plaatjies, among other students, is also concerned about the fact that load shedding creates a “breeding ground for crime” in and around campus when the streets are plunged into darkness.

Read in Daily Maverick: Criminals are enjoying load shedding, say Cape Town communities affected by crime

Daily Maverick previously reported the City of Cape Town’s Mayco member for safety and security, JP Smith, saying the “lack of lighting in areas experiencing load shedding does make it more difficult for officers during their patrols and, of course, there is also an element of staff safety that comes into play”.

The prolonged outages do increase the risk of opportunistic crimes and impact on pedestrian safety, Smith says. There have been incidents at UCT when students have been robbed at gunpoint or knifepoint, Plaatjies adds.

Tarik Lalla, a student at the University of Pretoria and a member of the SRC, is also concerned about safety. While he acknowledges that the university has made efforts to help students during load shedding, such as extending access to the libraries, more needs to be done to find solutions to increase security, in particular.

Load shedding “does not only impact learning negatively… it exacerbates the safety and security of students who need to move between different areas depending on the availability of electricity supply”, according to a statement by Themba Moisa, vice principal of student life at the University of Pretoria. 

“We are doing everything we can under these trying circumstances to assist students,” says Moisa.

Lalla mentioned an incident on campus in which a University of Pretoria student was shot and killed for his phone on 10 September. He says the SRC is pushing the university to increase the presence of security services on campus and implement more proactive measures in addressing student safety. There could be more social programmes or talks that help students with their personal safety needs, for example, he adds.

“Listen to what the students are saying,” Lalla says. “We have a number of ideas for solutions, but they often fall on deaf ears, or it takes an incredibly long time for the university to act on them.”

‘A vicious cycle’

According to Plaatjies, it’s not just students who are suffering — lecturers are, too.

Plaatjies says it seems the university has increased pressure on professors to perform highly during this time, which then places more pressure on students. This has created an “atmosphere of tension” between students and professors, Plaatjies says. 

Ian Jandrell, a professor of electrical engineering and deputy vice-chancellor at Wits University, says both staff and students find these times to be “incredibly stressful” because blackouts make it much more difficult to educate, research and learn.

“It’s as close to a feeling of the end of the world as I’ve ever known,” Jandrell says. “It’s deeply frustrating as a professor, and I wish it was better.” No professor or dean works less than eight hours a day, he says, adding that the “real work” starts at night to try to find solutions to these issues. 

However, Jandrell says he has also noticed a “powerful resilience” among students and staff. Load shedding is a difficult reality to come to terms with, but people have worked around it and are moving forward as best they can, he says. 

“We have to set a tone as role models for moving forward through adversity. We have to keep a strong belief in the future.” – Health-e News

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This article first appeared on Daily Maverick and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Anna Southwell

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