Rhodes student ‘rape’ protests end but debates continue

Student protests at Rhodes University, nestled in the small South African town of Grahamstown, ended with the resumption of lectures last Monday after a week of dramatic disruption and disturbances over a ‘rape culture’ at the institution – but the conversation is far from over.

A ‘Reference List’ publicly exposing 11 alleged serial rapists and abusers on campus was circulated on Facebook late in the evening of Sunday 17 April. It sparked protests by students over what they see as the university’s failure to adequately handle rape and sexual violence.

Students shut down the campus, with the university suspending the academic programme on 20 April. That followed a week-long barrage of outrage and demands on social media, student gatherings, ‘naked’ (bare-breasted) protests, disruptions and barricades. Skirmishes with police saw some students arrested and later released.

According to the student newspaper Activate Online, the university reopened last week with an interdict still in place preventing students from “disrupting, obstructing or in any other way interfering with the academic process”.

Students could no longer suspend the academic programme without breaking the law – but that has not silenced them.

Students’ new actions, demands

Protesters going by #RUReferenceList urged students to engage in a question-asking campaign. While attending lectures students would force a discussion on rape culture instead of carrying on with business-as-usual.

The response from lecturers to this campaign was varied, Activate said. Some took it in their stride and engaged in meaningful debate; others either walked out or kicked students out for being disruptive.

Students calling themselves ‘University Currently Known as Rhodes’ or UCKAR – a nod to the #RhodesMustFall campaign which also prompted a call for renaming the university – came up with a list of demands.

One was that investigations should start as soon as any student reports or is accused of rape or sexual assault, starting with students they named on the ‘Reference List’.

The protestors also wanted accused students removed from residence and suspended from classes, or any position or job they hold at the university, while a rape or sexual assault investigation is pending.

Students called on the university’s prosecutors, Sarah Driver and Gordon Barker, to excuse themselves if there is any conflict of interest in a case. Also, any student society or organisation – including the Student Representative Council – was not to be recognised if it did not formally adopt a policy on sexual assault.

University response

Dr Sizwe Mabizela, the Rhodes University vice-chancellor, said the university would not tolerate sexual violence.

He said rape culture – which refers to cultural practices and norms that uphold patriarchy and tolerate gender-based violence as a norm – is endemic in South African society, and should not be condoned.

“Every person has a right to their bodily integrity. One rape is one too many. We acknowledge that there are flaws within the systems that are meant to ensure justice when one’s rights have been violated,” he said when addressing students.

Mabizela said the university also acknowledged the right of students to be angry. Society let survivors of rape down daily, as they were often not believed and securing a conviction was agonisingly difficult, which hindered reporting cases of rape.

“We need to debunk the ‘stranger danger’ myth, as more often than not rape is not reported because these assaults take place within intimate relationships.”

Ending sexual violence

In a statement last weekend, Rhodes University said it was committed to ridding the institution of sexual violence and rape, and providing a safe and supportive space for survivors.

It said an interim committee chaired by Professor Catriona Macleod and Thabani Masuku had been established to draw up terms of reference to seek ways that the university can strengthen its responsiveness to cases of sexual harassment.

The terms of reference will include enhancing a safe environment where victims and survivors can be heard in confidentiality and reviewing all policies and procedures relating to sexual offences.

The institutional culture, staff-student relations, relations between different grades of staff, and attitudes of management, academics, students, and administrative and support staff will be explored to see how they promote or weaken a sexual violence culture.

The university reminded students that any alleged perpetrator was innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, and that students are not above this law.

It will prioritise increasing capacity in the Harassment Office to help survivors of rape and sexual violence to get quick attention. Existing sensitivity training provided to staff and students, so that they can deal compassionately with survivors of sexual violence and rape, will be strengthened and expanded.

External prosecutors for rape cases will be employed, any student accused of any offence will be treated in line with section 35 of South Africa’s Constitution, and all students found guilty of misconduct including rape will have their transcript sanctioned.

A Times report on 26 April said cases were being reported to the police against alleged sexual offenders at Rhodes University named on the Facebook list.

Outlawing rape culture in universities

Lisa Vetten, a researcher on violence against women at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, wrote in a Thought Leader blog that resorting to ‘outlaw’ actions such as publishing an alleged list of perpetrators has historically proved useful in South Africa, either to inspire more research or take corrective measures.

She said a commission of inquiry was set up in 1989 after anonymous pamphlets were distributed at the University of Cape Town accusing five men of rape. A panel was established to investigate the problem in 1991.

Vetten noted that an anthropology student’s thesis at the University of the Western Cape, submitted in 1989 by Collette Solomon, indicated how sexual coercion by male student activists and leaders literally could not be spoken of by women students.

There were calls for policies and procedures to address sexual coercion at universities. Further research, she said, was undertaken in the 1990s at a number of universities across South Africa.

Vetten said that to some extent outbreaks of protests against sexual violence could not be separated from the broader context of student discontent.

“They revisit and update a persistent and deep-rooted feature of South African politics that makes struggles against gender and other injustices secondary to struggles against racial injustice. They merge too with a general social amnesia that requires scandal to remind us of rape’s daily reality,” she wrote.

“Rather than being dynamic and responsive, laws and policies are allowed to collapse into stagnant, ossified territories that outlaw complaints and make other spaces necessary for speaking the unsayable.”