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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Student directors take on gender issues in Festival debuts

Several student directors – all of them women – are presenting work at this year’s Festival that deals with the complexities of gender and sexuality.

One of them is 22-year-old University of Western Cape (UWC) Bachelor of Sciences student Ayabonga Pasiya, whose passion for drama was sparked when she was in high school. She’s at a university with no formal drama programme but, along with her cast, has impressed supervising lecturer Mary Hames with their ability to “write their narratives without apology”.

“Ayabonga has done amazing work,” Hames says. Her drama, Admission Reserved, addresses gender and racial stereotypes. “It’s not anti-men or anti-white, it’s just pro black women,” Pasiya says. The script was workshopped with the Gender Equity Unit at UWC. “Choosing [content] was difficult because I didn’t want to make it seem as though any person’s truth is more or less valuable than another’s,” Pasiya says.

“I’ve enjoyed watching the transformation of our stories into actions and the blossoming of confidence and will in the cast members.” Pasiya’s says of her Festival directing debut, “I would like anyone who has been a victim of rape, molestation or abuse of any kind to feel that they can reclaim their bodies.”

Tackling taboo topics

Inez Robertson, third-year acting student, writer and director of City Varsity’s Raw Meat, says she aims to highlight the plight of people who are often neglected in discussions about sexual violence. “Sexual abuse is so prevalent in this country that it has become part of our culture. But are we protecting the man that was raped? The sex-worker that was raped?”

“Touching on complex subjects such as sex work, homosexuality and sexual abuse is “important to me,” says Robertson, “not only as a writer but as a South African.”

“I’d like my audience to walk away wanting to challenge what they know and cf wanting to know more about how they can help people like the characters in the piece,” she says. “Sometimes it’s simply about getting to know the people around you and understanding that everyone just wants a chance, no matter what they’ve been through or what they do for a living.”

Setting aside emotional intensity, Robertson loves the highs of directing. “I’m hooked on the moment-to-moment thrill of it all,” she says.

Robert Haxton, the lecturer who supervised Raw Meat, praises the cast for their sensitivity to these intense issues. “They approach characters from a very inward and real place; they want to find the subtlety in the characters,” he says.

Honest theatre

For Mariska Denysschen, a 21-year-old BTech student at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), the focus is writing “relevant and honest” theatre. Her piece, Medea, supervised by lecturer Kabi Thulo, is an interpretation of Euripides’ Greek tragedy. “We’ve adapted the story to articulate more relevant themes for young women today, to create a Medea that women can identify with,” she says.

Denysschen says Medea questions the idea often portrayed in the media that women are “weaklings”. Her choice to represent women as strong, she says, is because she believes “it’s important for the world to see us this way”.

Not wanting to give too much away about Medea, Denysschen says the style in which the cast presents the piece leaves more than enough room for audience members to take away whatever they need to from [it]”.

In producing experimental theatre, Denysschen says the challenge was to “sustain” the unconventional “language” in Medea. “The process was made easy by the hard-working and committed cast members, whose fearlessness and trust in me humbled me,” she adds.

For the love of theatre

The fourth student work involving gender is Enough is Enough, a chapter in the life of a girl who was rapedLehlogonolo Sekgatja, whose directing debut represents The University of Limpopo, says getting the cast to understand the style of different types of theatre is the hardest part of her job but that forming relationships with the cast has made the long hours worthwhile.

“We call ourselves a family. We work hand in hand,” she says.

Sekgatja has been working on Enough is Enough while also pursuing a Bachelor of Sciences degree. “[This] is something we love; it’s people with passion who wanted to do this,” she says.

The highlight for Sekgatja is watching the protagonist in Enough is Enough transform under different circumstances.

Originally published in Cue Newspaper, 2015

Tefo Paya: A grounded, courageous performer

Motswana playwright Tefo Paya describes himself as a “closet writer”, who aims to put on “relatable” productions.  In his Standard Bank Ovation Award-winning piece Morwa: The Rising Son, he gives snapshots of his protagonist’s life, drawing attention to their different life experiences.

Paya begins his one-man show performing a poem. An enclosure of bright orange organza fabric is on the Gymnasium’s floor around him. He moves within space, picking up and putting on a different piece of clothing, each time transforming into a different character.

Outstanding percussionist Volley Nchabeleng follows each of Paya’s movements, playing a tune from his kalimba, building up a beat on his drums or belting out a melody. He punctuates each of Paya’s punchlines, perfectly matching each scene transition with a musical arrangement.

Routinely, Paya returns to the centre of the organza ring to cleanse himself with water from a metal tub on the stage. Watching Paya douse himself in water on a chilly evening draws in the audience further. “My sense of touch was awakened,” says one audience member after the final applause.

Paya’s portrayal of a Tswana man’s life experiences is compelling and authentic, enriched with a side-splitting humour. He takes the audience on a captivating road, touching on how expectations of gender affect the main character.

Paya’s open-ended ending, which features a stellar vocal performance by Nchabeleng, leaves audience members emotionally moved. “I couldn’t clap when the applause started. I was still inside the story,”  says one woman.

The personal becomes public

In an interview with Cue, 30-year-old Paya says Morwa: the Rising Son started as a personal narrative. Its foundation came about while he researched masculinity for his honours thesis. Paya says, “All of a sudden, I said, ‘I need to tell my story’”.

“One of the things I felt I lost out on was being guided properly. That’s why rites of passage are a big part of the piece,” says Paya. In 2012 Morwa: The Rising Son was first performed at the Maitisong festival in Botswana. Paya later developed it “to make it every man’s story”.

He says, “I started hearing stories from young men, mostly in Botswana, and there were many similarities”.  The common thread he found was the issue of fatherhood in African homes, which he also addresses in the piece. “What is described as a man…yes, there’s a big definition…but no one ever actually fits into it. If we can address things like the vulnerabilities of men, we can get to the root of violence.”

He adds, “You’ve got to get to the roots if you want to deal with the problem”.

Connecting with the audience

Having performed Morwa: The Rising Son for diverse audiences, Paya says the highlight of the experience has been the audience’s reactions: “The look into the audience afterwards – their eyes – there’s a moment where I’m seeing people, not an audience, witnessing a story about another person”.

The journey of writing and performing Morwa: The Rising Son has helped Paya better understand himself. “I’m very sensitive, as a performer and as a person. I can perform in ways that are very technical, but I don’t like that. I prefer a piece like this one – one that lives and grows with every performance and allows nuances.”

Paya adds, “[It’s] strengthened my identity as Motswana – understanding who I am, and embracing it.”

“There’s something in us as Africans – the soul or the spirit – which grounds, looking beyond materialistic greed.” He emphasises the importance of being connected to the environment – what he describes in his vernacular as “go wela mowa”. “The reason we’re not so well is that we’ve been pulled away from our roots, from being present.”

In addition to physical and technical preparation before his shows, Paya values spiritual preparation: calling on his ancestors for guidance. “I believe you’re given a gift and you’re meant to use it for a purpose.”

A purpose-driven artist
Paya works hand-in hand with Warren Nebe, director of Morwa: The Rising Son. Nebe, who has known Paya for many years, describes him as “willing, courageous, honest and profoundly disciplined”.In future, Paya hopes to pursue a doctorate in drama therapy, focusing on psychology and sociology in the arts. “I am an artist who uses my craft for change. For me, [it’s] not just a performance – it needs to serve a purpose.”

Paya says in five years time he will have his own arts school in Botswana, centred on community development and teaching different aspects of theatre: “What I’ll do is invite guest artists from all [over] Africa. By me performing, I meet a lot of people – I’ll invite them”.

“So you want to bring the world to Botswana?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says, “But also to take Botswana to the rest of the world. Those who have been to Botswana will tell you there’s something about it – an energy. If you can appreciate it, you find an inner peace that you won’t find in most places”.

Originally published in Cue Newspaper, 2015

I Have Life – Alison’s Journey: a review of Maralin Vanrenen’s stage adaptation

A stage adaptation of “I Have Life – Alison’s Journey” opened at Victoria Theatre on Thursday, 2 July and was received with a standing ovation.

The theatre piece is based on the well-known story of Alison Botha; a woman who was brutally raped and left for dead by two attackers in Port Elizabeth. Following Botha’s attack, she published a best-selling book titled “I Have Life” (as told to Marianne Thamm).

Theatre Excellence

Described by the audience as “real” and “uplifting”, I Have Life deserves the highest praise. Suanne Braun’s portrayal of Alison Botha is outstanding. So convincing is Braun’s acting, that after the show, several inspired audience members flocked to her, praising her and addressing her as ‘Alison’.

The stage adaptation is crisp – evocative and horrifying in the right places, but also, moving. Despite the fact that I Have Life deals with the painful subject of rape, there was a good dose of humour injected into the piece. Director Maralin Vanrenen’s choice to add light-hearted moments reflects her desire to portray Alison’s truth, which includes Alison’s sense of humour.

Skilful scripting

Vanrenen’s seamless directing ensures that the audience is hooked from the start. It should not be overlooked that Vanrenen is able to bring to life a play, using a narrative mostly comprised of Alison Botha’s thoughts as a basis. Achieving this is a testament to Vanrenen’s creativity and dedication to detail.

Including excerpts from Alison Botha’s motivational speeches in the script,I Have Life tackles common myths about rape and rape victims. The play sensitively highlights various aspects of the trauma of sexual violence, such as depression, loss of self-confidence and anger. In this way, the play is a vehicle for Alison Botha’s story to reach victims of all types of sexual violence: encouraging them to take charge of their futures.

Audience discussion

The opening show was followed by an audience discussion, curated by a City Press journalist. In the discussion, members of the audience expressed how profound they found the narrative. One audience member, a social worker with 2 decades of experience, said that the play needs to be shown in different communities around South Africa.

Several people agreed that the play was a necessary one, which aptly highlights the plight of women in society. Maralin Vanrenen says, the intention of the play was to show how it “is the responsibility of us all to change the state of society” when it comes to the issue of violence against women.