Rcus­sions still lingers

Mail & Guardian - - Friday -

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

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