Generational trauma is a seldom discussed topic in South Africa, despite the fact that it is one of the pervasive phenomena in our post-apartheid society. Even though the discriminatory laws of the past have been repealed for over 23 years, we still find many remnants of those oppressive laws today. Our session with Professor Allengary Naiker shed light on the prevalence of this phenomenon in family structures and within institutions. What particularly struck me about this was it’s incredible effect on young South Africans in educational institutions.

South Africa’s current education system has faced extreme criticism both from within the country and from external commentators. Producing some of the lowest through-put ratios of students in the schooling system from primary and high school, the focus was not only diverted to the efficiency of teaching methods, but to the structures of support that are made available to learners to keep them in school. Unsurprisingly, under-resourced schools have the least mechanisms in place for this kind of support for learners. This is unsurprising because it is these historically-black schools that significantly lagging in terms of adequate infrastructure, learning facilities and learning materials.This lack of urgency to transform these schools – which are often the only schools that poor people in rural areas and townships can afford and access – is only one of the ways in which institutions allow the negative and destructive remnants of the past to seep into the new South Africa.  As a result, learners who are underprivileged have an exponentially lower chance of receiving a quality education, thus decreasing their ability to escape the vicious cycles of poverty in which they find themselves.

From a surface-level analysis, it may seem like an understandable conclusion that wealthier students tend to perform better academically than poorer students. But what if the unequal resources was only a portion of the problem? What is often ignored in this discussion about the challenges to our educational system is that we are often too quick to brush aside the emotional and psychological baggage of our past. We pay little attention to the fact that a regime which deliberately and systematically used resources to alienate and disempower people of colour, remains intact (in principle) when we fail to undo those systems. The exposure to violence, poverty, substance abuse and absent parents becomes embedded into the psyche of the younger generation and manifests itself in the inability to learn and perform well academically and in other areas too.

These issues do not end in schools, unfortunately, as they are carried all the way to university – for the few students of colour who actually make it to the tertiary level. The expectations and burden that comes with being a first generation student is immense for students of all cultures, however, for underprivileged students of colour, the pressure is even greater. The responsibilities are much more because of the  financial burden which may have been caused by the legacy of apartheid, which subjected many people to menial labour, sub-standard education and isolation from developed cities with resources and adequate infrastructure. And so in university, the pressure of balancing academic requirements, as well as supporting families back at home and adapting to the new environment – all the while carrying the psychological trauma of their inherited history- is particularly difficult for non-white students. The most likely outcome is that these students do not cope with the pressure and end up failing to complete their degrees.

This conversation got us thinking about the different needs of students from different backgrounds in our universities and what mechanisms need to be put into place to assist them with adapting and coping with the academic demands of university life. We also discussed the importance of mental help and the need for psychologists and other mental health practitioners in universities to provide better support for these students so that they can stand a better chance of staying in the education system and successfully completing their studies. We looked at the role that we as student leaders can play in this process too, by lobbying for the state to increase the resource allocation into these mechanisms and to prioritise mental health for students who are particularly affected by generational trauma.