A Recollection of the #RUreferencelist protests


TW: sexual violence, rape culture

In late March 2016, Rochelle Jacobs, a student at Stellenbosch University shared an idea for an anti-rape campaign on a SA feminist Facebook group. The idea was to put up posters around our universities, to draw attention to how university staff was failing to help victims of rape. It was called the Chapter 2.12 campaign, which was a reference to the section of the Bill of Rights, which ensures the right to safety.
A few weeks later, several students at Rhodes University who had been in contact with Jacobs, met to discuss how to implement the Chapter 2.12 campaign on our campus. In that meeting, we shared experiences we had heard of or experienced ourselves, where the university had failed us as victims of sexual assault. We typed up some of the experiences we had talked about and printed out the quotes. On some posters, we typed the hashtag #Chapter2.12. We also included other messages we thought were missing in the conversation about rape: that a perpetrator of rape can be anyone, that a victim of rape can be anyone, and that our university needed to take rape more seriously.
We put up the Chapter 2.12 posters on the 10 th of April overnight. Activists at Stellenbosch and UCT did the same at their campuses. When I got to my campus the next morning, the posters had all been taken down by the Campus Protection Unit. There is a rule that you can’t put up posters on the library wall, we were told; a rule that was never previously enforced. After speaking to several parties and gaining permission, we put the posters back up. The campaign gained traction on social media.
Students reacted differently to the campaign. Many students supported it; even helping us put up the posters again. Over the next few days, a few of us would have discussions about rape culture with students who passed by and asked about the campaign. For other students, the campaign was too much. It brought back too many memories and pain, understandably.
Later in the week, we were informed that our posters had been taken down “for an investigation” by the university management. Although they released press statements about our campaign, the university did not ask to discuss the claims we made in the posters. Several staff members had seen it and many of them knew us by name, but we did not receive any response.
Because the campaign had upset many students who had experienced sexual assault, when the posters were removed, we chose a different message to replace them with: “We will not be silenced”. By the end of the week, we were exhausted and emotionally drained. We regrouped and strategized: how could we support the other campuses’ Chapter 2.12 campaigns and how could we push forward the second and third legs of the campaign? As had been proposed by our collaborators at Stellenbosch, the following leg of the campaign would include a march to the Administration building as well as producing a documentary about rape culture. We planned to screen a documentary called The Hunting Ground the following week, which, due to what followed, never happened.
On Sunday, the 17 th of April, a screenshot of an anonymous post published on a Queer Crushes and Confessions Facebook page was posted to the Rhodes SRC Facebook Group. The anonymous post was titled “Reference List”, listed the names of eleven men who were students (past and present) of Rhodes. As people discussed this list on the post, a sentiment emerged that the listed men were alleged perpetrators of sexual assault. I watched this conversation develop while at home, sitting on my bed; a quiet night otherwise. But Rhodes University was shaking.
My Twitter timeline was bursting. This was the point from which we never returned. A collective body of students – many of them Black womxn, many of them queer, many of them fallists – had decided to act upon a social knowledge and to break the silence which maintains rape culture. The moment reminded me of a quote by activist Pumla Gqola who in 2007 wrote, “From experiences lived, shared and related, we know how widespread — endemic — gender based violence is. We can undo it only by unmasking the collective denial, that lie that we tell about how we do not know who is abusing and raping up and down the length of South Africa.”
Following the release of this list, students started to mobilize, organizing themselves through social media tracking, each other through the hashtag #RUReferenceList. According to Activate, a campus newspaper, “What followed was 5 hours of demonstration around campus, with those involved actively seeking out those listed in the #RUReferenceList and demanding of them explanation as to why their names were on the list in the first place. This took the demonstrating students from Union, through to Jan Smuts, Goldfields, Calata, Cullen Bowles and Graham residences respectively.”
At the end of this, students drafted a list of demands which would redress rape culture: That the university prosecutors step down, that the Harassment Office which deals with sexual assault cases be provided with more resources, that the sexual assault policy should be revised to recognize different forms of sexual assault, that the SRC member whose name appeared on the Reference List be removed from his position.
The following day, when students felt that the management had not responded adequately to the demands made by students, they instituted an academic shutdown. They mobilized around campus, disrupting lectures in a bid to draw attention to the fact that rape culture permeated through all the fabric of social life. During the mobilizations, the university management discouraged us from forming barricades, a different tune to the one they sang during the Fees Must Fall shutdown the previous year. On Tuesday the 19th of April, in resistance, students formed a human barricade at one of the university’s entrances. When this happened, several students (but not all) – standing in the front – participated topless. As the group’s voices bellowed, “Senzeni na?”, pictures of this #NakedProtest flooded social media. A fleet of police vehicles lined Somerset Street next to the human barricade: a confusing response to a group of topless, vulnerable, singing young students protesting rape. It stung more given the fact that the police fail victims of sexual assault so often in South Africa but on this day, had come out in full force.
On Wednesday 20 th April, while gathering for another day of protest, five students were arrested while others were tear-gassed and pepper sprayed by police. Classes were officially suspended.
The protests continued as the university refused to allow one of the revised demands of the student body: to suspend (pending investigation) the students listed on the Reference List.
Rhodes University was granted an interdict against students: a court order barring students from interrupting classes as well as from “from intimidating, assaulting or threatening any member of the university community.”
Given the restrictions placed by the interdict, it was suggested that the academic project be transformed into the form of protest, at a student body meeting. The following Monday, the 25 th of April, the #RUReferenceList task team – a group of students coordinating protest activities – coordinated six student-led lectures, which tackled topics such as consent, the exclusion of LGBTI people from anti-rape campaigns and the university’s sexual assault policies.
Fanon writes in The Wretched of The Earth that “Involvement in the organization of the struggle will introduce [the colonized] to a different vocabulary: Brother, sister, comrade”. Campaigns such as #IAmOneInThree protest at the University of Witwatersrand, the #EndRapeCulture protest at Stellenbosch University and #UCTSpeaksBack – all of which mobilized in solidarity with #RUReferenceList – attest to Fanon’s message. Several civil society organizations also added to the collective outcry against rape.
Over the next few weeks, protests continued in different forms. Smaller groups of students held a demonstration in the administration building, and later occupied the SRC offices, calling again for the SRC member who was named on the list to be removed. Later, students also disrupted a colloquium on gender-based violence, where the vice-chancellor was set to speak.
Ultimately, the university management remained resolute on the decision not to suspend the people on the Reference List. They reiterated in press statements that they could not do this as it was a violation of the alleged perpetrator’s rights. Looking back, the impasse between the university management and students was based on a disagreement on the validity of the list.
While students who mobilized on that April night came to a collective agreement about the validity of the list based on their lived experiences, the university management continued to promote the same policies, which Chapter 2.12 highlighted had failed, as a remedy to the problem.
In the opinion of some, the interdict held back a lot of the #RUReferenceList protests. Students were afraid that if they ‘disrupted’ classes, they would immediately be arrested or face legal consequences. Thus, the interdict was seen as a silencing tool. A group of Rhodes University staff members, in support of students and of #RUReferenceList, opposed the interdict, and appealed to the Higher Management to order remove the interdict. However, the management insisted that the interdict was necessary to prevent unlawful activities. Rather, the University setup a task-team: the task team’s role would be to make recommendations to address the rape crisis.
During the #RUReferenceList protests, a legal rights organisation, Socio Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) met with students and decided to challenge the interdict. For months, they consulted with students and then, launched their case to get the interdict dismissed.
In December 2016, after a High Court hearing, the judge presiding over the case ruled that the interdict had been too broad, and dismissed a majority of the demands made in it: a small victory for those who had protested.

This post was first published in print in Publica[c]tion 2017, published independently by Publica[c]tion Collective. For more on the student protests across South Africa, view/download Publica[c]tion.

For an update on life at Rhodes University since these protests, check out my follow-up piece Challenging the culture of rape at Rhodes.


6 thoughts on “A Recollection of the #RUreferencelist protests

  1. I actually got shivers reading past the parts of the topless protest because the level of vulnerability was met my heavy police presence. I do not know what kind of society we live in where we have to beg to not be raped, and the cops will come to teargas us anyway.

    I also got upset remembering the looooong response written by Thembi Lewis that can be summarised as ‘I know the courts are trash, but report me to the cops if I really did what you claim I did’. I remember asking myself: “Who he finna scam?”

    We are in a lot of trouble, Gorata. A lot.

    1. Girl, I often feel so defeated. We have to keep resisting, and I’m committed to that. But trying to outsmart the cisheteropatriarchy really is draining and often, it feels like the gains are miniscule compared to the oppression.
      Thanks for engaging though. I always appreciate it.

  2. Today. Today is painful. Re-reading all of this and realising there hasn’t been progress at UCKAR except in the further oppression of protesters.

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