In 2005, Fezekile Kuzwayo accused Jacob Zuma, then Deputy President of the ruling party, of rape. During Zuma’s rape trial in 2006, the One in Nine campaign organized a national day of solidarity with “Khwezi” (the pseudonym adopted to protect Kuzwayo’s identity). At Rhodes University in Grahamstown, a group of activists marched to the High Court in solidarity with the One in Nine campaign (the group of feminists who first believed Kuzwayo and kept believing her). A year later, members of the organization hosted the first annual Silent Protest against sexual violence at Rhodes. When I took part in the protest for the first time in 2012, the protest had grown to be the biggest of its kind in the country, boasting over 1000 participants.
In the years I attended, the Silent Protest was somber yet significant occasion. Like clockwork, the clouds would gather together above as we marched to the Main Admin building. During the day, most participants wore black tape across their mouths to symbolize the silencing effect of rape. In the evening, reverberations of Kuzwayo’s courage were felt in the Cathedral vigil, as one by one, those who wore “Rape Survivor” t-shirts entrusted the crowd with their stories. What moved me about the protest was that it provided a space to de-stigmatize the experience of rape: a platform for those who had experienced sexual violence to speak out openly.
In April 2016, four years after I first participated in the Silent Protest, Rhodes University exploded in an anti-rape protest of a different kind. Following the publication of the #RUReferenceList – a list of alleged perpetrators of sexual violence – on social media, students shut down the campus, demanding the suspension of the listed students.
As the hashtag #RUReferenceList went viral on social media, feminist rage spread ferociously. Soon, our cry for justice was echoed by students from other campuses, who expressed their solidarity by mobilizing under the hashtags #Iam1in3, #UCTSpeaksBack and #EndRapeCulture.
Perhaps for outsiders who were familiar with Rhodes University’s legacy of hosting the Silent Protest, that rape culture still persisted at Rhodes may have come as a surprise. However, for those of us who had over the years learned of the violations of our peers, which occurred often at the hands of other students, the image of our university as a safe space had long faded.
The #RUReferenceList protests highlighted that symbolizing silence was no longer an adequate strategy for ending rape. As activist/author Pumla Gqola had said, rather than symbolic solidarity, there needed to be a social cost for raping. At a time where our faith in our institution’s preparedness to combat sexual violence had dwindled, the Reference List was the megaphone we needed to break the silence.
Months later, shortly before commemorations of Women’s day had begun, four women staged a silent protest as Jacob Zuma delivered a post-election speech in Pretoria. Amanda Mavuso, Naledi Chirwa, Simamkele Dlakavu and Lebogang Shikwambane stood in front of the president, holding up posters which read “#I am 1 in 3”, “Khanga”, “10 years later” and “#RememberKhwezi”. Although they were quickly removed from the venue, their reminder echoed across airwaves and online spaces thereafter. As the name “Khwezi” regained prominence, the nation had to meditate on the sore fact that the victim-blaming beliefs that drove Kuzwayo into exile a decade ago still plague us today.
On the October Sunday that we learned of Fezekile Kuzwayo’s death, we experienced a deep heartbreak; a spiritual laceration. Waves of grief and disbelief washed over us, leaving us worn. At Rhodes University, later that week, when we held a vigil to celebrate Fezekile’s life, even the most outspoken amongst us had no words to articulate the weight of the loss. After all, in mourning Fezekile, we were mourning one of our greatest feminist teachers. In remembering her, we would inherit the responsibility of fighting to create the society she deserved.
In paying tribute to Kuzwayo’s legacy – her courage and her intellect – we must pledge to remain cognizant of the violences that queer people, women, non-binary trans people, and HIV-positive people face every day. Our life’s work is to reclaim justice as our birthright, even when we tremble with fear. It is our task to institute a real freedom and put to shame the farcical institutions that fail us time and again. The enormity of patriarchal violence, fused with our own traumas, may discourage us, but we must remember that Fezekile also treaded this path. We must prepare to carry this baton as far as we can run. As our race heats up, may Fezekile Kuzwayo rest in peace and in power.