Yesterday, learners in public schools across the country received their reports for the last term of the year. My younger brother, who is in grade 11, was in a state of great anxiety informed by the fact that this report will be used to apply to universities next year when he is in matric. He was worried that he might not have performed as well as expected, and that this might jeopardise his place in university. I was worried too, but not about his prospects of being in university, but about the multitudes of other young people who are also battling anxieties about their academic future. I want to share with you what I told him.

2020 has undoubtedly been a difficult year. I cannot think of any year in the new dispensation that has been as bruising as this one has been. When coronavirus was first detected in China a year ago and subsequently spread to other parts of the world, we all believed that its biggest impact would be on the health infrastructures of countries. We believed it was a global health emergency and nothing more. But we soon realised that this virus was not only going to kill people with compromised immune systems but would also decimate national economies and people’s livelihoods.

For South Africa, COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time. Just a few weeks before the country went into lockdown, our economy slipped into a recession, with the GDP having shrunk by 1.4 percent in the fourth quarter. Seven out of ten industries contracted in the fourth quarter, contributing to already high levels of unemployment. In just two months of lockdown, 3 million people lost their jobs. Families lost incomes, hunger became widespread and schools had to be closed to prevent the spread of the virus.

The result of this is that millions of learners, particularly those in public schools where the learning infrastructure is not as advanced as it is in private schools, found themselves battling to adjust to a new way of learning and teaching. Online learning might have been an alternative, but it was not the solution, because millions of learners were left behind due to not having resources to learn digitally. But it wasn’t only about having laptops and data, it was also about a conducive learning environment that many learners living in informal settlements or in small households with large families simply did not have.

Learners in 2020 had to get through the year under such conditions. You had to watch your families lose incomes, to bury loved ones who succumbed to the virus, and to be confined to your homes for months without seeing your friends. You had to get through the curriculum with inadequate assistance from teachers, and when schools were finally re-opened, it was an entirely different world for you. Anyone who expects you to obtain the marks that you usually do is unreasonable.

I am older than many of you reading this article, but even I battled immensely with my academic work. The stress of online learning and other issues that came with lockdown forced me to defer my studies. I woke up one morning and decided to send an email to the Dean of Students at Wits University where I was registered for a Masters in Environmental Science that I could not go on, that the university needed to de-register me for the year and I would return in 2021 when my mental health was better. If an adult can struggle like this, what more teenagers who haven’t developed strong coping mechanisms?

So I want you to know that the report you received is not a reflection of your potential. It is in fact a reflection of your strength and will to fight under difficult circumstances. Be proud of how you’ve been handling these past few months. The silent battles you’ve fought, the times you’ve wiped your own tears – celebrate your strength. You are not a failure!

*Malaika is the bestselling author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation and the recently published Corridors of Death: The Struggle to Exist in Historically White Institutions.



Read about one writer’s experience with mental health stigma here
Tell us: If you were studying this year, how was the year for you?