After campus rapes, a national plan to tackle scourge

In the aftermath of close to 50 incidents of rape and sexual violence on South Africa’s campuses, the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, will launch a national strategic plan to tackle gender-based violence.

“It is a crisis that affects every community in our country and that touches the lives of most families in one way or another. Gender-based violence is an affront to our shared humanity. The unrelenting murder of women – for no reason other than that they are women – is steadily corroding the soul of our nation,” he said at a two-day gender summit in Pretoria in early November.

Ramaphosa’s announcement of a plan to tackle the scourge of gender violence comes after years of lobbying by civil society groups in South Africa. His announcement follows a commitment made by Minister of Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor two weeks earlier to move with speed to finalise a gender-based violence policy for the tertiary education sector.

The minister said she was concerned at the levels of violence in public institutions, within the context of a violent society.

After a roundtable meeting on the issue of safety and security in higher education institutions on 19 October, she announced that South African universities would partner with the country’s Department of Higher Education and Training to develop an action plan aimed at addressing violence against women on the country’s campuses.

Pandor’s announcement came two weeks before the start of the two-day presidential summit on gender-based violence and femicide on 1 and 2 November. The summit, announced by Ramaphosa in August, saw women sharing details of how they had suffered at the hands of their attackers.

Pandor first lifted the lid on the extent of rape and sexual assault at universities during a parliamentary session in September. She revealed that 47 students had been raped on campuses in 2017, a revelation that led to an emergency summit last month.

Pandor said she saw the roundtable meeting – which included representatives from universities and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges, including vice-chancellors and principals and student leaders, and a small group of invited guests – as the beginning of a process of engagement.

“Through further discussion with stakeholders, the department will develop a programme of engagement over the next year, with the aim of developing strategic partnerships across the sector to address issues of violence and violent cultures on university and TVET campuses,” she said.

Acknowledging the society-wide nature of the problem, she said: “We are dealing with a very difficult set of issues, not just for higher education, but for society more generally… I sensed silence from the leadership of institutions, so I asked for this meeting. We cannot allow the notion to take hold that we don’t care. We do not want our universities and colleges to become an accepted microcosm of the violent society that we live in …universities should be places within which Chapter Two of the Constitution lives.”

Pandor said she was committed to collaborating to ensure success in the fight against gender-based violence but also pledged to swiftly finalise a policy document aimed at tackling the issue in the tertiary sector.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, the CEO of Universities South Africa, said at the roundtable meeting that a co-created response involving all stakeholders would be necessary to address the range of issues facing the sector. This may include ensuring a better understanding of the situation on campuses, and the responses of institutions.

Issues raised included the policy frameworks supporting safe and secure environments; how curricula can foster ethics and values and cultures that mitigate against violence, discrimination and harassment; and what forms of engagement exist on campuses and how these should change to support safer and more peaceful institutions.

The meeting also discussed the role of universities in producing research that can assist us in understanding the dynamics on campuses and raised issues about how universities engage with their local communities. A key issue for the sector is how to balance the tendency towards securitisation and the need to provide safe spaces for learning.