How ‘Khwezi’s activism shaped a generation

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. 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.

 

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Awareness initiative needed to tackle sexual violence at Rhodes University

TW: discussion of sexual assault

Sexual assault remains a pervasive problem in society and Rhodes University is no exception. Some Rhodes students have expressed concern about the University’s lack of communication on the matter, and others feel an awareness initiative to prevent sexual assault is needed.

Survey indicates some students are aware of procedures dealing with sexual offences

In early 2015, Rhodes University society Gender Action Project* (GAP) surveyed students about various gender-related topics. A total of 124 students, all of whom had been enrolled at Rhodes for at least one year, responded.

Over 60 % of the survey respondents said they did know what to do if they experienced sexual assault at Rhodes.  Of the 62 students who responded positively, ten said they knew the procedures due to their own initiative or because they had been informed of them during student leadership training.

One respondent said, “I know, but only because I had to specifically find out, which was intimidating”.

Another respondent said, “I know that there is support available but I don’t know what steps to take. I think it would be helpful for some sort of pamphlet or easily accessible information to be spread, so that everyone knows about how to help people, not only those who are actively seeking support”.

Another response said, “The procedure isn’t known because we aren’t informed on it –  not as a house comm member during training and not as a new student entering Rhodes. We shouldn’t have to ask for these talks to be done”.

One of the respondents added, “Instances of sexual assault, abuse and rape are hushed up by the university and we as students never hear about the developments and disciplinary action taken. I think ordinary students need to be more involved and informed by the university”.

An incomplete picture: the available statistics on sexual assault at Rhodes

Rhodes University categorizes disciplinary offences into two levels: lower and higher discipline. The difference between these levels is how they are investigated. Disciplinary cases which fall under Lower Discipline, for instance, causing noise disturbances in residence, are overseen by Hall Wardens.  Cases which fall under Higher Discipline, for instance, theft and copyright infringement, are investigated by the University Prosecutors.

Offences such as sexual assault and sexual harassment are classified as Higher Disciplinary offences and thus, are investigated by the University Prosecutors. Currently, the only publically available records of sexual assault complaints at Rhodes University are those recorded by the university Prosecutors in the Higher Disciplinary case reports, which are released at the end of each semester.

According to the Higher Disciplinary case reports from the period 2011 to 2014, a total of 185 Higher Disciplinary cases were reported to and investigated by University Prosecutors.

total cases

Of these 185 cases, there were seven cases of sexual assault and/or sexual harassment recorded and investigated by the prosecutors.

Sexual assaults

Of these seven reported cases, one resulted in an investigation where an accused was found guilty. The accused was excluded from Rhodes University for one year.

timeline.png

Given the low number of ‘successful’ convictions for sexual offences during 2011-2014, depicted in the Higher Disciplinary reports, Director of Student Affairs, Dr Colleen Vassiliou was asked to comment on whether these statistics reflected the scope of sexual violence at Rhodes.

She said, “The 7 cases the prosecutors dealt with would be 7 cases where students/staff possibly requested level 4 disciplinary intervention.”

Dr Vassiliou cautioned that students and staff have four options to choose in dealing with sexual assault cases, and that disciplinary action is only one of those four.

Reporting Harassment2.png

In light of findings on sexual offenses in the Higher Disciplinary reports, the two university Prosecutors were asked to comment on the following:

  • What challenges they face when trying to prosecute cases of alleged sexual assault or harassment
  • what kind of evidence is needed to secure a conviction in a sexual assault or harassment case
  • why they would decline to prosecute in a case of sexual assault or sexual harassment
  • why sexual assault and sexual harassment could result in a mediation between the parties involved.

They declined to comment.

The difficulty with using statistics to understand the scope of sexual violence

Statistics released by the South African Police Service indicate that there were 62 649 sexual offences reported in South Africa in 2013- 2014. However, anti-rape advocacy groups often point out that police statistics are not completely accurate because many sexual offences go unreported.

According to Rape Crisis Cape Town, an organisation which supports victims of sexual violence, research has suggested that “if all rapes were reported, the figures could be as high as… 500 000” nationwide.

Organiser of the 2015 Silent Protest against Sexual Violence, Dr Lindsay Kelland also expressed concern about the reliability of statistics when it comes to the reporting of incidents of rape and sexual violence.

Kelland said due to the fear of being pitied, exposed or shunned as a result of the stigma around sexual violence, many victims choose not to report assaults to the police.

“I feel as though our in-house statistics [at Rhodes] would be even less reliable given a widespread lack of understanding on the part of Rhodes staff and students about how they go about reporting such incidents, who they report them to and the ramifications of doing so.

Over the years, these procedures have changed significantly. These changes have, I imagine, not only confused students but have also left the wardens and sub-wardens a little confused about what to do if a student comes to them with a problem.

On top of this, if one searches for this information on the Rhodes University website, one finds old policies and conflicting instructions,” Kelland said, suggesting that the university’s policies on sexual offences needed to be made clearer to students.

A new, “liberating” procedure

Currently, sexual offences are to be reported to the manager of Student Wellness, Nomangwana Mrwetyana. Mrwetyana became the manager of student wellness/harassment officer at the beginning of 2015, after the Division of Student Affairs went under review in 2014. Before this, harassment could be reported through different reporting officers within the university.

She said, “Initially complainants used to go to the Director of Student Affair’s office when the word was not yet out there.  I have seen a significant increase in the number of reports during term 2 [of 2015].

My role is to explain the various options and the complainant makes an informed decision after weighing the pros and cons of each option…The new procedure is quite liberating and gives the complainants the agency and autonomy to be able to still make choices about their lives as one is not forced into taking a particular direction.

This is obviously done in a caring manner and they are not forced to make hasty decisions.”

The scope of sexual assault at Rhodes remains unclear

Asked if the statistics on sexual assault or harassment cases recorded in the higher disciplinary reports presented an accurate idea of sexual violence at Rhodes, Mrwetyana declined to comment. The Registrar, Dr Stephen Fourie, also declined to comment.

Mrwetyana added, “I am however aware that some complainants prefer to only seek medical help, the Health Care Centre keeps such records when they are approached for medical intervention.”

Mrwetyana also keeps a confidential record of assaults reported to her. However, she said, “The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) code of conduct prohibits me from publishing such a record.”

Mrwetyana said that, in the instance that the alleged perpetrator is not a student or staff member of Rhodes University, the complainant can be referred to the police. In such situations, Mrwetyana added, the complainant would be referred to the Rhodes Legal Clinic for legal assistance.

She also said that if a student is accused of sexual assault or harassment, by two or more students, the matter would, with the complainants’ permission, be referred to the University prosecutors for investigation.

Shifting the focus from prosecution to prevention 

Although noting disappointment in the low levels of successful prosecutions reflected in the Higher Disciplinary reports, (2015) vice chairperson of Gender Action Project*, Sian Ferguson, said that the university administration needs to focus on being transparent about how they handle sexual offence cases.

She added, “I think an awareness initiative should be prioritised at the moment. Very few people truly understand the definition of sexual assault, and for that reason, it should be compulsory for all first-year students to attend a workshop on assault & the law during orientation.”

“There is no point in spending more resources or energy on punishing perpetrators when potential perpetrators aren’t made aware that their actions are wrong, and when victims don’t know how to report,” Ferguson said.

Rhodes University’s Policy on Eradicating Unfair Discrimination and Harassment is currently under review.

*Disclaimer: The author of this work is the 2015 chairperson of Gender Action Project society at Rhodes University.

Kenyans quash misrepresentations with #SomeoneTellCNN

The President of the United States, Barack Obama, is currently in Kenya for a state visit. Obama is the first US president to visit Kenya and thus, there has been widespread coverage of this event.

Ahead of Obama’s visit, news agency CNN reported that Obama was to visit “a terror hotbed”, which outraged Kenyan people.

Kenyans took to Twitter to set the record straight, using the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN

Though the #SomeoneTellCNN  hashtag was previoulsy used in 2012, this weekend, it went viral.

A trendsmap image showing where #SomeoneTellCNN was used, from @BBCAfrica

 

The danger of a single #SomeoneTellCNN story

Some tweeters were not as comfortable with the #SomeoneTellCNN hashtag, noting instances where Kenyan media have described Kenya in the same ways as CNN did.

Representations of Africa: a social justice issue

CNN’s coverage in this instance, which focuses only on a negative aspect of Kenya, reminds us of the problems that occur when African countries are represented by Western media.

Highlighting this trend in his piece How to Write About Africa, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina ironically writes, “Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention … Africa is doomed.”

Achille Mbembe, a Research Professor in History and Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, has also written about representations of Africa, noting that these often associate Africa with incompleteness and chaos.

Other scholars add that such depictions are part of the mechanisms which allow the West to maintain its dominance over Africa.

The imperative for Africans is, as scholars Grinker and Steiner write, to “learn to problematize the issue of representation in order to locate and unpack the economic, political, personal, and other motivations that might underlie any particular image of Africa,”.

The representation of people (and nations) is a social justice issue because it impacts how people are viewed and treated. #SomeoneTellCNN is a tool through which Kenyans have pushed back against misrepresentation and a good example of how digital media can be a formidable force against the mainstream media.

Resistance through social media: From #MCInHerShoes to #InOurShoes

content warning: discussion of gender-based violence & victim-blaming

Recently, I wrote about the online uproar after Marie Claire magazine’s launched its Women’s month #MCInHerShoes campaign, which was criticized for including men who’ve been accused of domestic violence, such as DJ Euphonik.

Marie Claire, which pledged to donate money to a charity which aids abused women when people used the #MCInHerShoes hashtag, initially stood behind the campaign.

Not wanting to miss out on an important debate, on Thursday, the Department of Women (DoW) joined the conversation on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624128434613190656

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624128611323387904

The tweets were not well received.

Why abuse victims drop charges against abusers 

Jen Thorpe, a women’s rights researcher and editor of FeministSA.com, responded to the DoW’s tweets, explaining why it’s problematic to criticize women who withdraw charges of domestic violence (which the Department of Women should have known, but let’s not digress).

Thorpe addressed the complexity of reporting an abusive romantic partner to the police, saying: “In some cases, women face pressure from the family of the abuser,” to make the relationship work.

She continued, “Abuse is often cyclical and linked to alcohol and substance abuse. This may lead the woman who reported to believe that their partner will never abuse them again.”

Thorpe also explained that there can be severe consequences for women who report domestic violence to the police, particularly if they are economically dependent on their partner.

Considering research findings, which indicate that reporting abuse to can lead to the abuse worsening, it goes without saying that the Department of Women’s tweet’s were inappropriate.

They later tweeted:

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624231380701085696

Taking matters into our own hands

For social justice activists concerned about gender based violence, the gimmicky #MCInHerShoes campaign and the Department of Women’s attitude to victims of violence is incredibly disappointing.

However, with thanks to social media, more of us have the power to counter harmful media representations and present alternative narratives.

On Thursday morning, activist Michelle Solomon took to Facebook to begin #InOurShoes, a campaign which seeks to represent people’s experiences of violence more accurately and more inclusively than #MCInHerShoes.

Twitter users started sharing personal experiences of gender based violence:

https://twitter.com/b_oliphant/status/624271259241709568

https://twitter.com/uzamantungwa/status/624287448080744450

On Thursday afternoon, Marie Claire magazine issued an apology for their campaign, describing it as “ill-conceived”.

To join the conversation, use the hashtag #InOurShoes to share experiences of gender-based violence.

Missing the mark: #MCInHerShoes

Recently, to commemorate Women’s Month, Marie Claire South Africa announced their #MCInHerShoes campaign. The campaign features 18 male celebrities who pose in high-heeled shoes to “stand with women”. MC

The campaign was met with resistance, and accused of trivializing women’s issues.

Part of the criticism included Marie Claire magazine’s choice to draw attention to 18 men for women’s month, as well as their choice to include who have come under fire for sexism and alleged abuse, such as Gareth Cliff and Dj Euphonik.

Clictivism for a cause?

Writer Louise Ferreira, describes the #MCInHerShoes campaign as a cheap gimmick in an article for Women24.

Ferreira continues to point out the slacktivism element of the campaign: “Your tweet is going to make little difference to the lives of abused women, but it allows you to feel that you’ve done something, so you don’t need to put in additional effort.”

Where marketing meets charity

#QueerStruggles and #RhodesMustFall are examples of Twitter campaigns which have brought to light the injustices faced by marginalized groups. What these campaigns did well was push back against heterosexism and institutional racism, by creating awareness.

What Marie Claire ends up doing, as pointed out by Ferreira, is using the reach of Twitter and the fact that August is Women’s Month to further themselves in the name of standing against violence.

Ferreira says, “This is a PR exercise, an attempt to boost their brand on Twitter, and it is contemptible.

Promoting comfortable ‘discomfort’

For some, it may not be clear why there is such an uproar over Marie Claire’s efforts, particularly since they attempted to bring men into the gender conversation.

However, there’s a difference between activism which challenges society’s norms and campaigns which reinforce the status quo. Responding to the criticism, Marie Claire editor Aspasia Karras tweeted:

A lot of the time, challenging social norms such as the inferior status of women in society is (and should be) an uncomfortable learning curve, especially for the people those social norms favour.

I gather Marie Claire’s campaign aimed to make the men involved ‘uncomfortable’. And heels are, for many people, uncomfortable.

However, #MCInHerShoes made more people uncomfortable, by prioritizing the experience of wearing heels over the discomfort caused by street harassment, domestic violence and the threat of sexual assault and centering men in doing so.

Many also point out that, by associating high heels with womanhood, the campaign also plays into gender stereotypes. This does very little to disrupt the status quo, where a patriarchal system constantly defines women as being different and lesser to men.

Women’s Month is important in the sense that it can highlight gendered violence which still plagues our society. That said, this could be done women without reinforcing the idea that men and women are inherently different and that there are two, rigid expressions of gender.

There is also a lot of work which needs to be done to include trans women and gender nonconforming people in campaigns for equality, as they often face discrimination for not fitting into gender norms.

https://twitter.com/sianfergs/status/623453563956666368

The #MCInHerShoes campaign plays into established rules about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man.

At first glance, it may seem useful, but upon deeper analysis, the campaign trips up and falls short.