SEX AND GEN­DER CRISES AT UCT

Late last year, a group of fe­male stu­dents at Michaelis, SA’s most pres­ti­gious art school, staged a protest against sex­ual ha­rass­ment at the hands of male stu­dents. One of the young ac­cused is a star pupil. When in­ter­nal charges were laid against him, his

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To­day is the day you have to go to class with the boy who sex­u­ally as­saulted you. You will sit be­hind him to keep him in your field of vi­sion. You will re­call the way he said, “Let me pull down your panties so you can be a nasty girl, ’cos I know you like those things,” as he stood be­tween you and the bath­room door.

To­day is the day – even af­ter he was found to have bro­ken the stu­dent code and was expelled – that you will have to see the face that was pressed up against yours as he pinned you to the bath­room sink. Be­cause to­day is just an­other day on cam­pus, and you are just an­other woman who has been failed by a univer­sity’s dis­ci­plinary sys­tem.

Nine­teen-year-old Larissa Mwanyama is a first-year fine arts stu­dent at the Hid­dingh Cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Cape Town (UCT), which houses the fine arts and drama fac­ul­ties in the Cape Town CBD. On the af­ter­noon of Oc­to­ber 4 2015 at around 1pm, she says, she went to the women’s bath­room and was fol­lowed by a male stu­dent.

“I asked him: ‘What are you do­ing in­side the bath­room?’ and he kind of ig­nored my ques­tion.”

The male stu­dent was Sipho Mpongo, a 22-year-old pho­tog­ra­pher whose work has been cel­e­brated in th­ese pages, a Mag­num grant re­cip­i­ent, au­thor of a frankly in­cred­i­ble photo se­ries called Born Free, and one of the Michaelis School of Fine Art’s ris­ing stars.

In his version of events, he “asked her if I should go in­side the cu­bi­cle with her be­cause I was con­fused as to what was go­ing on ... I tried to kiss her and she said no and I let her go. We both left the toi­let.”

UCT’s dis­crim­i­na­tion and ha­rass­ment of­fice, which pro­cesses com­plaints, and the univer­sity’s stu­dent dis­ci­plinary tri­bunal, which metes out jus­tice, seal their hear­ings and records. The only rea­son this story can be told is be­cause both Mpongo and Mwanyama have con­sented to in­ter­views and agreed to be named. Any in­for­ma­tion that was shared by UCT in the course of my in­ves­ti­ga­tion was gar­nered be­cause UCT com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager Pat Lu­cas was ei­ther con­firm­ing or deny­ing the events I put to her.

Make no mis­take, this is not an iso­lated case. Ac­cord­ing to UCT, “in 2015, the dis­crim­i­na­tion and ha­rass­ment of­fice re­ceived eight com­plaints deal­ing with rape, at­tempted rape and sex­ual as­sault, and 13 com­plaints of sex­ual ha­rass­ment”.

How many cases went un­re­ported is any­one’s guess.

On the morn­ing of Oc­to­ber 5, Mwanyama ap­proached a se­nior stu­dent and men­tor and told her about the or­deal.

Af­ter con­sult­ing staff, they were re­ferred to the Stu­dent Well­ness Ser­vice, which sug­gested that she speak to a ded­i­cated cam­pus coun­sel­lor. The coun­sel­lor would not be at Hid­dingh for nearly a week, so the se­nior stu­dent drove Mwanyama to the Up­per Cam­pus. Af­ter they made the for­mal state­ment to the dis­crim­i­na­tion and ha­rass­ment of­fice, a no-con­tact or­der was ob­tained to pro­hibit con­tact be­tween the ac­cuser and the ac­cused on univer­sity property.

Mpongo did not show up for the ini­tial tri­bunal and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the dis­crim­i­na­tion and ha­rass­ment of­fice in­di­cated that they would get the or­der to him.

Mwanyama started to speak to other fe­male stu­dents. Not only had she al­legedly had a pre­vi­ous, sim­i­lar in­ci­dent with Mpongo, she was hear­ing that oth­ers had also been both­ered by him and his friends. She says a to­tal of 23 young women told her Mpongo had sex­u­ally ha­rassed them.

The fol­low­ing day, in con­tra­ven­tion of the pro­tec­tion or­der, Mpongo tried to speak to Mwanyama on cam­pus.

A Michaelis stu­dent says: “This was a mo­ment in which staff were re­quired to take ac­tion with re­spect to the dis­crim­i­na­tion and ha­rass­ment of­fice’s pro­ce­dure. They did not do so.”

It has now emerged that the or­der was served on Mpongo only three days af­ter it was re­quested.

It was at this point that an­other mem­ber of Michaelis’ staff sug­gested to Mwanyama that she would be bet­ter po­si­tioned to study from her room in res so that she would not have to deal with the trauma of see­ing Mpongo on cam­pus. Ad­di­tional teach­ing ma­te­ri­als would be sent to her.

Es­sen­tially, this would have cut her off from all of her sup­port net­works on cam­pus. The hear­ing was post­poned and Mpongo con­tin­ued to at­tend classes.

How did it get to the point where a first-year stu­dent at the coun­try’s most pres­ti­gious art school could al­legedly com­mit dozens of acts of sex­ual ha­rass­ment be­fore he was called out? The fact that al­most none of the 13 stu­dents and lec­tur­ers I spoke to wished to be named for fear of neg­a­tively im­pact­ing their ca­reers speaks vol­umes.

To zoom out for a mo­ment, an in­ci­dent that occurred at the drama depart­ment’s mock awards event in Novem­ber is il­lus­tra­tive. One tongue-in-cheek cat­e­gory in­cluded “best on­stage kiss”. The win­ners went up to re­ceive their crowns and the crowd chanted: “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” The young woman po­litely re­fused. The young man grabbed her by the head and forced his face into hers. The crowd burst into cheers, even af­ter it was plain that the girl was up­set and trau­ma­tised. She qui­etly left the func­tion.

There was a rape re­ported dur­ing the #FeesMustFall protests, in the epi­cen­tre of safety – Aza­nia House. To catch the al­leged per­pe­tra­tor, fe­male stu­dents named and showed a photo of him on so­cial me­dia, hav­ing given up on achiev­ing jus­tice through the sys­tem in a coun­try awash with sex­ual violence.

I don’t wish to di­min­ish Mpongo’s ac­tions, but in my opin­ion they can­not be con­sid­ered in iso­la­tion. It could be ar­gued that 400 years of colo­nial­ism and the apartheid mi­grant labour sys­tem dam­aged black fam­i­lies and caused un­told gen­er­a­tional dam­age by tak­ing away fa­thers. At its core, any sys­tem of pa­tri­archy is bound to re­sult in violence.

And we need to re­mem­ber that a univer­sity such as UCT, with its abun­dance of white art grad­u­ates, needs bright tal­ent like Mpongo, and seems will­ing to go so far as to for­give him prac­ti­cally any­thing just to be able to say it has this young black star to prove that it is not a racist institution.

On Oc­to­ber 15, on the eve of the #FeesMustFall up­ris­ing, a protest ac­tion was held at Hid­dingh, or­gan­ised by Mwanyama and other stu­dents, fol­low­ing what they felt was a dis­tinct lack of de­ci­sive ac­tion. The march was made up of 20 to 30 al­most ex­clu­sively fe­male pro­test­ers. One of them, in frus­tra­tion, broke her si­lence and named the ac­cused as Mpongo. This was cap­tured on video, along with a claim that the pro­test­ers knew of 59 in­ci­dents of sex­ual ha­rass­ment by Mpongo and other young men.

The march moved to the Michaelis build­ing, where a lec­ture was tak­ing place on mas­culin­ity and violence. As­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Fritha Langer­man met the march.

When I spoke to Langer­man the week af­ter the protest, she clar­i­fied that the dis­crim­i­na­tion and ha­rass­ment of­fice was the only process avail­able and had to be al­lowed to run its course, but she did add that the prob­lem of sex­ual ha­rass­ment of stu­dents on cam­pus was “vast and un­spo­ken. More stu­dents need to come for­ward.”

Langer­man’s state­ment was echoed by Lu­cas: “We are con­cerned that many stu­dents try to deal with the trauma of such an of­fence on their own ... This is es­pe­cially tragic when such ef­fec­tive forms of sup­port are avail­able at UCT – a logic that seems to sug­gest that vic­tims of sex­ual violence are to blame for non-re­port­ing.”

Af­ter the even­tual hear­ing, when asked about how he felt about the march, Mpongo said: “[It] made me feel their pain, and it never occurred to me that such be­hav­iour was wrong to­wards women. I came to a re­al­i­sa­tion about how I grew up back home speak­ing about women ... It is such a sen­si­tive is­sue and I was in to­tal sol­i­dar­ity with them. There is a fine line be­tween want­ing to date some­one and prob­a­bly mis­treat­ing them … We are not taught much about treat­ing women in South Africa.”

In an as yet un­sent let­ter to Michaelis staff, an­other stu­dent states that the ac­cused “took ad­van­tage of the plat­form of his fi­nal foun­da­tion course lec­ture to de­liver a speech about his role in the al­leged as­sault. He stated that he and Larissa were only ‘play­ing’.”

Mwanyama re­sponds with quiet de­ter­mi­na­tion: “This is not true and he knows this, and for me to have to clar­ify this con­stantly is in­sult­ing, dis­gust­ing, un­nec­es­sary.”

The let­ter goes on to say that noth­ing was done to stop Mpongo’s speech, “re­gard­less of its po­ten­tial to trig­ger other stu­dents who have come for­ward and claimed ha­rass­ment by this same man”.

Dur­ing this, the as­saulted stu­dent sat in her res room, afraid to at­tend class.

In his in­ter­view, Mpongo is ap­pre­hen­sive at first. When asked about al­le­ga­tions of other in­ci­dents, he said: “I in­tend to do in­tense re­search about my be­hav­iour and [that of] my friends around me. I am do­ing in­tro­spec­tion and I am see­ing a psy­chol­o­gist. All sorts of help is needed.”

At the Hid­dingh Cam­pus, stu­dents of­ten work late, of­ten alone. “When some­where you con­sider a home-like place is vi­o­lated,” says a stu­dent, “it makes you re-eval­u­ate just how safe you are there ... On a few oc­ca­sions, I have gone through es­cape strate­gies in my head.” The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem lies with the sys­tem. Says one of the protest or­gan­is­ers: “Peo­ple kept say­ing we would ruin his ca­reer. I say he ru­ined his ca­reer the minute he laid claim over some­one else’s body. That type of ar­ro­gance comes from know­ing he can get away with it. It’s a shame that some­one’s ca­reer and im­age are more im­por­tant than an­other’s life and well­be­ing.”

There is an anec­do­tal story that has been told to me by three dif­fer­ent women about a male artist in the mas­ter’s group who no longer speaks to women at Michaelis.

“I guess this is in­tended as pun­ish­ment for what is clearly ‘a con­spir­acy’ tar­get­ing Sipho, un­doubt­edly run by some se­cret fem­i­nist car­tel,” says one.

I was even con­tacted by two dif­fer­ent prom­i­nent male artists, ask­ing why I was “per­se­cut­ing” Mpongo.

The closed-door hear­ing was set for Novem­ber 14, at which the ac­cused would rep­re­sent him­self, and Mwanyama would find her­self in a room with only her lawyer, a me­di­a­tor and her al­leged at­tacker. Even­tu­ally, the hear­ing hap­pened on Novem­ber 24.

“Be­cause Sipho chose to de­fend him­self ... he had to sit through the whole pro­ce­dure, while I only went in for my state­ment,” says Mwanyama. “I didn’t hear the rul­ing, I didn’t hear his state­ment ... He went in first be­cause they had to press charges ... And then Sipho had to ask me ques­tions. So he asks me, ‘Larissa, if you saw me fol­low­ing you to the bath­room, why didn’t you tell me to go away?’ I said I knew ex­actly what he was do­ing ... be­cause the boys’ bath­room is at the bot­tom of the stair­case ... and the girls’ bath­room is at the top.

“Then he went off: ‘Larissa, I don’t know where this is com­ing from; we were friends! I don’t know why she’s do­ing this ’cos she called me to the bath­room, and I was her friend – so I went with her and she nagged me to be with her, so I stayed.’”

She con­tin­ues: “What really up­set me was that the asses­sors al­most took his ques­tion into se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion, be­cause, there­after, the ques­tions were, ‘Oh, but Larissa, why didn’t you tell him to go away?’ All I could think of was why am I held un­der trial? The whole sit­u­a­tion was very un­com­fort­able. I didn’t feel like any­one really took what I was say­ing se­ri­ously. It was al­most like he’s been given, like, a get out of jail free card.”

The next day I sent fur­ther ques­tions through to Lu­cas, who re­sponded al­most im­me­di­ately: “The stu­dent dis­ci­plinary tri­bunal has fi­nalised this case. The stu­dent was found to have breached the stu­dent code; was expelled; the ex­pul­sion was sus­pended; and a sanc­tion of 65 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice was im­posed.”

My in­ter­view with Mpongo took place by email a few days af­ter the hear­ing. Af­ter two weeks of not hear­ing from her, I sent Mwanyama fol­low-up ques­tions. Both she and Mpongo con­firmed that they would be at­tend­ing Michaelis in 2016.

Al­though she would even­tu­ally re­ceive an email from UCT about the out­come of the hear­ing, Mwanyama first heard it from me. In the case of Mwanyama vs Mpongo, UCT ne­glected to timeously in­form the com­plainant of the out­come.

“I am just sat­is­fied that there is an out­come. I gen­uinely thought that the board would come up with an­other de­lay,” she told me. “How­ever, I am con­cerned about whether Sipho un­der­stands how in­tense his of­fence was ... I am un­com­fort­able that we will be shar­ing the same space next year, but I have to deal with it and move on. Most of the time, I felt very alone and out of the loop. Some­times it felt like all the re­spon­si­bil­ity was on me.”

If UCT’s sys­tem had been more ef­fec­tive, if it did not re­in­force in young men’s minds that they were en­ti­tled to women’s bod­ies through the sys­tem’s very mute­ness, then Mwanyama and Mpongo would not be in that class­room as ad­ver­saries in 2016.

In the end, Mpongo still claims Mwanyama led him by the hand to the bath­room, but he “was wrong for think­ing what Larissa and I had was con­sen­sual. It is hard to be a man in this coun­try. What the law says and how peo­ple be­have, and the no­tion of love and be­ing loved, is also dif­fer­ent.”

Mpongo con­cludes his fi­nal What­sApp con­ver­sa­tion with me by say­ing: “I have a greater re­spon­si­bil­ity of find­ing out what it means to be a man in this coun­try.”

Mwanyama, how­ever, is un­der no il­lu­sions about what it means to be a woman.

PHOTO: PRAAG.ORG

INTERSECTIONALITY OR NOTH­ING A #FeesMustFall pro­tester’s poster af­ter the al­leged Aza­nia House rape

PHOTO: HER­MAN VERWEY

YOU STRIKE A WOMAN Women – such as th­ese at the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria – took the lead in the #FeesMustFall protests, which hap­pened shortly af­ter the Hid­dingh Cam­pus protest that spoke out against ha­rass­ment at the hands of men within the move­ment

PHOTO: IM­RAAN CHRIS­TIAN

SOL­I­DAR­ITY A photo from UCT’s #FeesMustFall protest. Days ear­lier, a march led by 20 to 30 women from the nearby Hid­dingh Cam­pus had protested against male ha­rass­ment from stu­dents

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