"The Privileged Black Child?": Reflections on my Privilege--Or Lack Thereof--As a UCT PhD Candidate

19 Sep 2018 - 14:30
Privilege Graphic


Tebogo Mokganyetji (PhD Student, UCT)

Editorial Note: Tebogo Mokganyetji is a PhD student and SASH Fellow in the Division. Her PhD research is on the experiences of children who are growing up with HIV. In this piece, she offers a personal reflection on her experiences as a young black South African woman studying at the University of Cape Town. 


My Background

I was born in Sekhukhune District, Limpopo. I am the third of a family of five born to African National Congress comrades. I was the one among my siblings ‘chosen’ to attend private, or what we commonly know as ‘Model C’ schools. At these schools, you are  most likely to be taught by white or Indian people. On the off chance that those schools have black teachers, they are not allowed to speak to learners in any other South African language other than English and Afrikaans. These schools were mostly situated in towns, had an average of 30 learners in a class and had much better infrastructure than the public ‘government’ schools. Teachers were better able to interact with us and provide the support we needed in order to learn and progress in school.

Having this form of education prepared and enabled me to access spaces I know my siblings might not easily maneuver. I had opportunities to travel and work in several different places. I worked, studied and participated in exchange programs in Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, Canada and Germany. It is probably due to my educational background that I am doing a PhD at UCT today. It is a significant milestone for my parents that ‘rural girls’ like me can be accepted into and funded for a PhD program at UCT. Many of my relatives and friends see me as a very privileged young woman, and I guess in many ways, I am. 

I wonder if it is really privilege that I find myself at UCT when there is so much pain and anxiety associated with being black here.

My assumed privilege, however, leaves me conscious of the sacrifices that my parents had to make to give me the education that I have. How did my parents process having to choose only one child to attend those private schools because they could not afford to send more? For me, this does not feel like privilege, but rather immense sacrifice. I also remember going through 12 years of an education system that insisted on calling me by my ‘Christian name’, regardless of how much I hated that name. I hated being called by a name that my ancestors did not identify with or recognize. This definitely did not feel like privilege for me. This experience didn’t feel like a privilege because it came at a very high cost of sibling tensions, growing up away from home in boarding schools, and always feeling like a visitor in my home and my school, both places that supposed to be places of safety. This privilege that I have had, of access to the benefits of a previously whites-only school, has come at a very high cost and doesn’t feel like privilege.

Emotional Traumas: Being a UCT Postgraduate During the Protests

This dilemma around my privilege—or lack thereof—has also been an important part of my experience as a PhD student at UCT. I joined UCT in 2016, at a critical time in South Africa, when the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements were gaining momentum on campus. These movements were forcing previously white institutions to acknowledge and engage white privilege, the oppression of black bodies, decolonization and financial instability. This meant that UCT and other universities were forced to engage with the complexity of inclusion, affirmative action and transformation after apartheid. Being a student at UCT makes me understand what it must have felt like to be a black person in South Africa during apartheid. During the apartheid era, education was a platform for the white regime to teach black people how inferior they were and what their proper role in society was. The curriculum was not designed to bring out the best in black learners, colluding in the erasure of black excellence. School was a method to govern and monitor the engagements among different racial groups. 

Twenty four years after apartheid, black people are still expected to undertake the emotional labour required to teach white people how to be politically correct.

There were so many traumas in the protest space, particularly in the space I occupy as a black body. There was so much violence.  What really stood out for me were the choices made about which actions were labelled as ‘violent’. The throwing of stones and burning of tyres was reduced to a violent act. But violent police responses and the dismissals of the movement by those with power brought about memories of ancestral oppression and segregation. These were not regarded, however, as violence. 

This is the reality for black people. We struggled and grappled with multiple facets of the protests. And all we could do was to just show up and hold spaces for each other as postgraduate students. I struggled a lot during the protests. Though I was funded for my studies, I was not excluded from the triggering of black pain. Black people are expected to function to their utmost best in this institution where racial and class segregation persists. Twenty-four years post apartheid, UCT is still characterised by such forms of violence. 

Emotional Labour: Constant Expectations to Teach and Overcome

My supposed privilege did not protect me from the emotional traumas that the protests brought up.This privilege also did not protect me from the emotional labour that comes with being a black student at UCT, and the expectation that black staff and students should be leading the process of transformation. The possibilities, processes and problems of healing are so complex and taxing. This is important and intricate work, but one can only wonder how it might be done without being so draining of those most vulnerable. While there have been some conversations about transformation, I have wondered how that process could be done with less emotional labour from the people who have feel most violated by UCT.

Twenty four years after apartheid, black people are still expected to undertake the emotional labour required to teach white people how to be politically correct. This work is emotionally draining. How can it still be the responsibility of the oppressed and marginalized to teach white people about oppression and marginalisation? Black people are still expected to call out racism and class segregation when it happens to them. Apparently, this is a sign that they are empowered, that they can now speak for themselves. But why are they the only ones to do this work?

This emotional labour is doubly complicated for me. I know what it means to be systematically excluded. I understand what it feels like to have parents who are not rich enough to afford the support that could facilitate me reaching my academic potential. But I also know what it meant for me to not be poor enough to receive financial aid. That was some hard labour for me. There was an implicit expectation for all staff members and students to still meet deadlines during the protests. I watched students, lecturers and other staff suffering and struggling with these expectations. I found myself at a crossroads. I had the financial assistance that many students could not access. As a black woman who knows how it feels to be financially unable and excluded, it was hard to reconcile with myself how I could be involved in the protests, and felt strongly like a traitor for continuing to work on my project.

I also had to verbalise to my Division that race and sex is a thing for me. I wanted a black female academic to mentor me because I needed at least one part of my academic journey to look and feel like me, without so much labour. Of course, I still had to put in the labour because there were people who tried to convince me that mentorship was not about race or sex, that I did not need a black woman to make me feel better about my journey. 

Even the perks of my PhD training can come with unexpected labour. I am a Fellow in the Division’s SASH Fellows Programme, which enables us to go on writing retreats for a few days. This was a great space that allowed us to just focus on writing in a very conducive environment. I was never ready for the cost, though, at which this privilege came. At this beautiful retreat in the countryside of the Western Cape, black Fellows were policed in local shops because a group of black people could only mean trouble in a predominantly white area. I was afraid to go out for a walk alone, with other black Fellows, or without white Fellows, in case someone mistook me for a monkey and took a shot. 

Dealing with Mental Illness at UCT 

In addition to the emotional traumas of the protests, and the many forms of emotional labour I am called on to provide, I have also struggled with mental illness. I was diagnosed with depression when I moved to Cape Town in 2016 (just 2 months after I got here).  That year was hard for me; it was filled with too many events of pain and anxiety. For example, I found myself counseling Fellows through mental health issues and financial crises while also struggling with the same things. I remember a group of us Fellows sitting in circle and trying to be present for one another through the chaos and shutdowns. I was confused, wondering whether to support the protestors as an activist, or focus on my studies and mental health so that I could somehow remain functional.

I was glad for the diagnoses and access to care that I might not have easily had if I was not at UCT (I am not on medical aid) but it has still been very difficult. Different things about being in Cape Town have exacerbated my mental illness. The source of depression had little to do with being in Cape Town, though this place has the power to remind you of your ‘racial lane’, forcing people to interact with only those you feel racially similar to. This affects all of your relationships and engagements with other people. This was happening alongside all the issues highlighted above and it felt like too much. I did not know how to continue functioning. Around this time, I also had to change my research topic.  My original topic hit too close to home and caused me too much anxiety. This change in topic added to my pre-existing feeling like a failure and insecurities about being part of UCT. My inferiority complex went deeper than I could handle with the constant questioning of one’s worth, abilities and ultimately, humanity.

I therefore always wonder about this idea of the privilege that I have had. I continuously reflect on the assumption that I am privileged when I feel nothing but. I wonder if it really is privilege that I find myself at UCT when there is so much pain and anxiety associated with being black here. Is it still privilege when there were so many sacrifices from me and many other people just so that we can qualify to be here? I guess there are different levels to privilege, and if my being at UCT is privilege, then mine is the lowest kind of privilege. As a black young woman whose ancestors were oppressed, I do not feel privileged to be a part of UCT. 

The university carries for me a lot trauma and exclusion of blackness. Inclusion does not mean privilege. We need to recognize the sacrifices that black people have to make to be part of these spaces. Furthermore, let us not assume that people are starting off on the same foot when coming into UCT. There are a lot of physical, mental and emotional investments that are put through generations for people to be part of this university.  My background does not allow me to be privileged. Doing a PHD at UCT makes me struggle with so much. The labour I still need to invest by virtue of being a black UCT student does not make me privileged. And well, the depression means the difference between life and death. Everything is just a struggle.  It’s a struggle, not privilege.  

     Author Biography

Tebogo Mokganyetji is a PhD Candidate in Public Health, at the University of Cape Town. She has a background and experience in Rural and Youth developmentShe is interested in understanding the social contexts of children growing up with HIV in Khayelitsha. As a community worker, Tebogo would like to establish and work in community centers that address the challenges, oppression and ancestral trauma carried by African people towards their development. She would like to use research as a tool to inform and share knowledge that is contextualised and relevant for the development and empowerment of African youth and their communities at large.  

Email: a.tebby@googlemail.com