On sexual abuse at UCT
Former University of Cape Town (UCT) student via email
It was with great disappointment that I read Roger Young’s article on how UCT’s system failed a female student after she reported sexual harassment at art school (City Press, January 3 2016).
It seems that nothing has changed almost 10 years after I commenced my undergraduate studies there. Although not sexual harassment, I too experienced what I believe to be a great failure on the institution’s part to take seriously the concerns I had about the culture in the music department.
I quickly learnt that sexual relationships between students and lecturers were fairly common and openly discussed. I, a fiercely rebellious and hopelessly naive 19-year-old, fell for a lecturer who had had his fair share of student liaisons. It is a decision that was to bring me great pain, anxiety and, ultimately, regret – that was to teach me the difficulty of taking responsibility for my bad choices.
What I haven’t yet managed to understand, and it continues to cause me great distress, is the way the university handled (or didn’t) my continued voiced concerns over the policy that allows this behaviour and the total lack of concern for the wellbeing of a student who might find herself in such a relationship.
I experienced first-hand the effect that policy (or lack thereof) can have in tacitly encouraging a behaviour to the extent that it becomes normalised and part of the institutional culture. Remember, it wasn’t an odd occurrence, but rather one in which a handful of lecturers engaged completely openly.
When I finally realised the extent of my mistake, I was left with a broken heart and very public humiliation. It became an extremely difficult environment to study in. I decided that I might protect future students if I shared with university management the damaging consequences of such a culture, how the skewed power dynamic had given a lecturer unfair advantage in winning my trust. I should have known better, I know. But I didn’t, and honestly, many 19-year-olds wouldn’t. He certainly did, and that is where the problem lies.
I naively believed that SOMEONE at the university would care about the vulnerability of a student. Unfortunately, my concern was met mostly with apathy and sometimes aggression. A phone call to the dean ended with an interruption and a don’tworry-you’ll-get-over-it response. The wonderful people at the harassment office (an avenue I pursued only because more appropriate ones remained firmly shut) were extremely kind, but I soon learnt that if management higher up didn’t give a fig, then there was nothing they could do. One music lecturer came into my practice room and shouted at me. A conversation with the head of department ended, also, with an interruption, when he asked me if I wasn’t “just jealous” of the new student girlfriend that my ex had acquired and whether I had considered that a change in policy would infringe on the right to freedom of association of lecturers. I am still shocked at the lack of reason and empathy in that response.
It didn’t matter who I tried to speak to or how often I tried to explain that I was trying to highlight a structural issue at the university that was exacerbated by lack of policy, I was continuously met with criticism that painted me as a stereotypical “jealous” woman.
So I am not surprised that the institution failed Larissa Mwanyama at all.
To the young men and women who are vulnerable, inexperienced, rebellious and curious who will be entering that space soon, take care of yourselves. UCT certainly won’t.