Corridors of Death is a book by Lesego Samora Mahlatsi, also known as Malaika Wa Azania. The book is a collection of essays that explore the lived experiences of black students in historically white universities. It sheds light on how structural violence, racism and a culture of alienation are pushing students to the edge of depression and increasingly, suicide. The book also suggests that urgent structural and institutional interventions need to be made, the centre of which must be transformation that reflects the democratic and socio-political construct of South African societies.
The opening chapter of Corridors of Death is about a very important topic that has gained momentum over the years in South Africa; mental health in universities. Malaika begins the chapter by introducing the story of a student who died by suicide in Johannesburg, she was a student at Rhodes University. Khensani Maseko was in the university’s Student Representative Council (SRC) and she died by suicide following a sexual assault on her by a fellow student. The incident caused her a severe battle with depression. Before Khensani’s death, she took to Twitter to pen down her suicide note, and this sent shockwaves across the country and sparked a dialogue about rape culture within tertiary institutions. However, beyond the dialogue on rape culture, the death of Khensani also started a conversation around mental health in higher learning institutions. Although the dialogue initially was not around race relations, it was an entry point for a discussion that would ultimately centre on the race element
in mental health.
Malaika goes on to touch on the inadequate support that institutions of higher learning provide for students who are dealing with mental health issues. Malaika indicates that even though students would sometimes seek help from structures set by the university, there is an element of isolation and protection of perpetrators in universities. In an article by Sunday Tribune titled “Rape victims face culprits daily at Rhodes”, Khensani’s friends stated that she felt isolated on campus because of management’s consistent failure to deal with rape cases at the university.
Malaika continued to show the dire situation of mental health in South African universities by presenting stats; in Wits, UJ and UCT, the following students died by suicide in the recent years; Sanele Dlamini, Kago Moeng, Relebogile Pheto, Mpumelelo Tshabalala, Xolani Kosi, Tiyiselani Mpangane and many others. According to the University of Pretoria, 23 students attempted death by suicide in 2018 alone. In 2017 the University of Cape Town recorded six deaths by suicide.
Another important chapter in the book is Chapter 12 because it hits home for many readers. The chapter is titled “A University of
Pretoria student dies that day”. Here Malaika is in conversation with Thabo Shingange, a former SRC president and the National Spokesperson of the South African Union of Students (SAUS). Shingange witnessed the horrifying suicide that took place in the Humanities Building by a student as they jumped to their death. Thabo was walking from the library when he witnessed what happened. Having been the president of the SRC and an activist since his undergraduate years, Shingange knew the institution more intimately than most students. In fact, because he was the SRC president around the time of the #FeesMustFall movement, he had the front row seat to the theatre of students suffering. Malaika makes a point that before speaking to Shingange she already understood the issues causing mental health complications amongst black students in historically white universities – these stemmed from historical traumas suck as alienation from former model C schools, where most black students encountered racism for the first time.
However Malaika presents another point put forward by Shingange that he experienced; the trauma of surveillance. This is trauma that is the result of being intellectually imprisoned, unable to write about certain things which the university regards as damaging to its brand. Having claimed to been on the receiving end of this surveillance in his postgraduate studies, Shingange
knew first-hand the mental and emotional stress that such a practice can birth. Shingange contended that such a practice is more common in historically white Afrikaans universities, “for theirs is a culture steeped in apartheid securocracy” writes Malaika. Malaika continues to show this securocracy and surveillance as she writes about the #FeesMustFall protests at UP. Shingange accounts that it was during this time that black students suffered immeasurably at the institution. Shingange mentions students like Naledi Chirwa who was suspended by the university following the intensified protests for free education. Chirwa was woken up at 04:30 by the police in her home and was placed into a police vehicle and taken to Brooklyn Police Station.
Corridors of Death is a book written for black students in historically white universities who died of suicide after reaching a level of invisible agony, and for thousands more of students who live through institutional racism that is constructed and structured in an invisible manner that only those who encounter it are able to point out.
Image: Black Bird Books Africa