Rcussions still lingers
out poster wording in a PowerPoint document: “Rhodes hires rapists and abusers. Only one person is assigned to deal with all cases of assault and harassment at our university. Rhodes management doesn’t care about rape culture. A perpetrator can be any race, any gender, any age.” We printed dozens of A4 copies.
That Sunday evening, we removed posters advertising beach parties from the library wall, replacing them with #Chapter212 posters. The next morning, all the posters had been removed by campus security. There was a rule that posters were not allowed on the wall. After we sought permission to keep the posters on display, students stopped by to speak to us about the campaign and, within hours, the posters had garnered attention on social platforms.
Although they did not talk to us directly, in an article about the campaign several members of staff, including the vice-chancellor and the university proctors, were pictured reading the posters. In a statement, the vice-chancellor, Sizwe Mabizela, said: “Students and staff with complaints of harassment, sexual assault and rape are encouraged to come forward and report their complaint[s] to the wellness manager.” He expressed support for our protest but it felt like empty diplomacy — there was no response to the problems we had put forward. Later that week, the posters were removed again. We were left feeling exhausted and disheartened.
And then the pot boiled over. When #RUReferenceList happened, the university’s management was forced to acknowledge there was a problem. Within 24 hours, responding to student demands, the university had committed to increasing the capacity of the harassment office and to relying more on “external prosecutors” in sexual violence cases. It said it would improve staff sensitivity training and set up a task team to strengthen its response to sexual violence. The task team would later make more than 90 recommendations.
As students mobilised against rape culture during the #RUReferenceList protest, Rhodes acknowledged it was “a microcosm of [a] society in which sexual violence and rape are pervasive”. As Professor Pumla Gqola describes it, South Africa is a country in which women are “legislatively empowered, yet do not feel safe in our streets or in our homes”. Our society does not take sexual assault seriously until it makes headlines. Cultural attitudes that enable sexual violence to prevail go unquestioned. Men’s reputations are given more credence than women’s expressions of pain. Indeed, Rhodes is a microcosm of that society.
Much of the conflict around the protests, especially between university management and protesting students, revolves around one thorny matter: the credibility of the list. Mabizela described the reference list as “damaging” and “unconstitutional”. Despite this, students continued protesting, calling for the named men to be suspended. The university refused, saying it could not suspend them until they had been found guilty of misconduct.
In April 2017, when anti-rape protests threatened to resurface on campus, the university stated: “All cases emanating from a list of names which was published in 2016 … [have] been finalised.” Months later, Rhodes said that none of the men who had been removed from their residences after being named on the reference list had been found guilty of sexual misconduct, “even after thorough investigations by the university and the National Prosecuting Authority”.
In February this year, I sent Rhodes an email requesting clarity about the finalised cases. I asked them how many complaints had been received against the men, what the complaints were and what the outcomes of the investigations were. Rhodes acknowledged my email, saying it would get back to me. A few days later, when I sent a follow-up email, they said they would respond later that day but failed to do so. This week, I emailed Rhodes to ask for comment on the same matters. The university responded asking me which organisation I represent.
In an interview with SAfm in May, Rhodes’s communications director, Luzuko Jacobs, was quoted as saying that there were “no complaints”, nor were there any “complainants who came forward” to report any of the men named on the list.
To me, a former student, whether or not the reference list is credible depends on how one defines misconduct. It depends on what is considered a thorough investigation. It depends on whether you believe a woman who says: “He raped me.” It depends on whether these words are enough to turn her into a complainant.
#RUReferenceList could have been a moment when our university took a radical stance against sexual violence, as we did. Instead, it turned into #RhodesWar.
In 2017, Rhodes expelled two women involved in the #RUReferenceList protest for “criminal activity”. The student representative council described these expulsions as “inherently unfair”, saying they were “tantamount to the university absolving itself of its role in the panic and desperation” that led to the protests.
“If management had responded differently to the Chapter 2.12 campaign, we believe we would not be having this conversation,” the SRC said.
When news of the activists’ expulsion made headlines in December 2017, the university said the women’s participation in the #RUReferenceList protest “had nothing to do with the charges against them”. But it’s not easy for some of us to feel assured.
For many of us who remember what happened in 2016, it’s “safer” to stay silent. Since I graduated, I have heard accounts of alleged instances of sexual violence at Rhodes. Sporadic mobilisations and student body meetings have taken place. Despite this, none of the eruptions has escalated into a protest of the magnitude of #RUReferenceList, because students are afraid they could be individually punished for holding up a mirror to the institution.
For many who remember what happened in 2016, it’s “safer” to stay silent as students are afraid they’ll be punished
Silent protest: Showing solidarity with their Rhodes peers, University of Cape Town students march to raise awareness of violence against women on university campuses. Photo: Ruvan Boshoff/Gallo Images/The Times