Why I don’t believe in monsters

CN: sexual violence, perpetrators, violence

Motho ke motho ka batho. I am because we are. The promise is that we are only able to exist through other people, that we should value each other despite our differences, treat each other with compassion and coexist. It’s nice, isn’t it?  🙂

I have a concern…As far as I can tell, we’re not applying the principle of ubuntu consistently. We call on it to unify our nations and uphold it as a virtue. Ubuntu is our slogan in the good times.But where does ubuntu go when things go wrong?

I’m from a country where the death penalty is legal. A hanging in Botswana is not usually the biggest controversy. By 2013, Botswana had hung 47 people since independence in 1966. This year, they added another name to the list.

Growing up in Botswana, I thought the death penalty was just one of the things that happened mo life-eng: I didn’t question it. The justification was that the death penalty served as a deterrent to crime. Although South Africa does employ the death penalty, given the ‘high’ crime rate, I suspect that some may view the death penalty in the same way I did, as the ‘necessary’ response to the problem of crime.

The media reports on crime often and each headline seems more scary than the next, each crime more brutal and shocking. We fear for our safety. Those who believe in the police, want them to do more. To patrol. To catch the criminals and put them behind bars. ‘We’ want the people who threaten us to be locked away. What happens to ‘them’ when they’re locked away is not our concern. It hardly seems to worry us that prisoners could be harmed in jail. In fact, the idea of prison rape has snuck into the fabric of everyday humour. Somehow when someone has committed a crime, it’s easier to pardon the same crime being enacted against them.

Justice being served means locking  ‘them’ up. Justice is castrating the rapists (because they’re always presumed to be (cis) men) and making sure murderers get what they deserve. It’s an eye-for-an-eye.’They’ don’t belong in our society. Because of their actions, ‘they’ are not part of us.

This is where something just doesn’t feel right…

Why is it that when someone commits a crime, botho does not apply? If I am because we are, then surely I am because we all are? How can I be selective about who counts as “us”? It’s easy to say ubuntu when things are good, but why do we abandon taking responsibility for others when they are harmful? Doing this dehumanizes them – as if they have no history, no possibilities and no future. It paints their harmful choices as a part of their nature, as if only some people have the potential to harm others.

I’ve often thought about this in connection to sexual violence in our societies. Perpetrators of sexual crimes are often labelled ‘monsters’ because their actions dehumanize and hurt. One of the most prevalent misconceptions about perpetrators of sexual crimes is that they exist on the fringes of society. The reality contradicts this belief; rapists walk amongst us every day. They get groceries at the same places we do. Some of them are our friends. As we fear the strangers who lurk  in the shadows, the ‘danger’ is often closer to home than we’d like to think. And it’s too uncomfortable to confront that we could have the same capability within us, that this capability might betray our intentions.

I think that sexual crimes are the worst violations out there, but I can’t bring myself to forget that rapists are people too. I can’t say that they’re monsters, although I can acknowledge that their actions are monstrous. I do not believe anyone is born a rapist. Nor do I think that someone who rapes another can never change and make different choices. There are circumstances which lead to rapists making the choice to rape: whether we want to admit it or not, they are products of our societies. In addition, if we say that someone can never change, then we’re saying that violence is just a part of who we are and that there’s no way of doing better.

I’m struggling with it, but I’d like to believe that we are capable of a galaxy of things. That my perpetrator can be your best friend, and that the pain he causes me doesn’t make the love he shows you invalid (or vice versa). I’d like to believe that we can confront each other and love each other and create systems which allow both possibilities to flourish. Humanity is complicated battle for survival and love. Motho ke motho ka batho means, to me, that we’re connected to each other at all times. I think the connection still has the potential to help us heal, somewhere down the line.

 

*I originally drafted this post in December 2014 and did not publish/finish it until now. I have revised some things but most of it was written back then.

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The blame game: classism and inequality in tertiary education

Trigger warning: This blog post addresses classism and *extensively* quotes classist/ anti-poor sentiments. Also, there’s some reference to the #RUreferencelist protests later.

The national shutdown in the #FeesMustFall movement was significant in that, amongst other things, it displayed the potential for students to band together for an important cause. The extent to which #FeesMustFall can be deemed a success has been hotly contested, especially considering that several student groups have continued protesting financial exclusion well into 2016. Such protests indicate that the ‘0% increase’ secured through last year’s protests only tackled the tip of the iceberg.

At the university currently known as Rhodes, student activism led by groups such as Rhodes Asinamali, has shown that covering tuition costs is only one aspect of redressing financial exclusion. For instance, this year, there have been protests highlighting the plight of Oppidan students who attend lectures hungry because of inadequate funding. Another matter which arose was the high cost of attending graduation ceremonies for students who are not well off. Additionally, students pointed out the exclusionary costs of events such as Africa Ball (R120 per person), where provisions had not been made for students on financial aid.

Recently, Rhodes announced that they would withhold June exam results for students who had not honored their payment agreements or still owed more than 50% of their fees. The decision to announce this the day before results were due to be released angered many. Rhodes University’s spokesperson released a follow-up statement saying that some students had been given the payment warning erroneously. In addition, she said the University’s decision to withhold results was not a decision which was taken lightly as Rhodes had less than two months of funds** to cover its financial commitments.

Since the decision to withhold results was announced, it has been a hot topic on social media platforms such as Twitter, Rhodes Confessions and the UCKAR student body group. Such debates have pointed to a division in opinion over how the university handled this situation and in my view, have brought into question whether/how the types of solidarity we saw during the #FeesMustFall movement can be achieved again.

The polarizing nature of the views expressed by students via social media pose a big threat to student solidarity. Many of the comments I read contained heavy anti-poor sentiments. For instance, a common inference made was that (guardians/parents of) students who defaulted on payments did not ‘work hard’ enough and that is why they hadn’t paid. This logic rests on the idea that if one simply works hard, they will be able to accumulate wealth. However, in actuality, the workings of our exploitative economic system mean that the ‘haves’ benefit as a result of the poor’s hard work, not as a result of them working harder than everyone else. Thus, the simplistic view that working and lower middle class students can and should simply just work harder in order to make the payments unjustly victim-blames those already marginalized.

A second debate which arose was whether tertiary education is a right or a privilege. Several commentators argued that university education is a luxury and that people should ‘live within their means’.  In failing to acknowledge the contradictions of our reality, in the same breath, some of these commentators noted that ‘education is the key to escaping poverty’. This is where it gets tense, right – because if education is the key out of poverty, then it should go without saying that it shouldn’t be a luxury. If poor, Black students cannot access higher education* now, the country will remain untransformed.

Thirdly, the conversations I followed often became about “entitlement” – specifically, the entitlement of students who are indebted to Rhodes, presumably, in wanting to study at an institution they cannot afford. The anti-poor sentiment here is clear, as is the violent logic of capitalism. As Foucault writes, “Power is tolerable only on condition that it masks a substantial part of itself” – power works by ‘hiding its own mechanisms’.  In this instance, the power of class privilege works to frame the problem of inequality as a one which the rich have no part or responsibility in. So when the question of entitlement comes up, it’s never in reference to the entitlement that some CEOs must have in accepting bonuses/salaries that could pay someone’s school fees. It’s never in reference to the entitlement that people who have never worried about varsity fees must feel when they say that protests such as #FeesMustFall inconvenience them. The method of capitalism’s power is to ensure, repeatedly, that the many entitlements of the rich are never questioned or even seen as such.

In addition, the very word ‘entitlement’ in this context frames a Rhodes education as something that doesn’t belong to working class or lower-middle class students. Of course, the way the world is set up, nothing can [presently] be free. That said, it is troubling that some choose to frame wanting an education [one which could meaningfully change the lives of many students’ families] as something working and lower middle class students should feel wrong for. A lot of the comments/confessions I read suggested that if you cannot afford Rhodes, you should go study somewhere you can afford to. For many people, this is saying that they shouldn’t pursue tertiary education at all. Sentiments like these are the reason people can’t breathe at Rhodes University. It’s because even when you get ‘access’ to the space, the way the institution functions (and often, the views of fellow students) make you feel like you are not really meant to be there.

Further, comments like “The world owes you nothing” are meant to silence those who are dissatisfied with society’s deplorably low standards for economic justice. Saying that working-class people are ‘entitled’ is saying the ‘have-not’s’ should accept inequality as their cross to bear. It’s telling of how individualistic (and cruel) the world has become, because in such thinking, it’s inferred that an injustice suffered by one person is no one else’s business.

The lie of capitalism makes us think that any adverse circumstances can be overcome by just trying harder, undermining how hard many people already try.  We’re socialized to view our own (financial) successes as results of our hard work and in turn, view those who are not as privileged as being responsible for being in that position. Instead of addressing the cause of the unjust circumstances, we’re told that we can just “refuse” to let circumstances define us. This message is internalized by people on all ends of the class spectrum. This is why, as was seen in some confessions, some working or lower middle class students shamed others in the same position as them, saying that since their parents/guardians had “worked hard/made a plan”, others should/could too.

For those who felt that the results being withheld was unjust and thought Rhodes had acted in bad faith in the way it handled the matter**, there was considerable opposition. The rebuttal against us was that we “fail to understand reality”, don’t know “how the world works”, that we’re “throwing tantrums” and need to be “made aware of some truths”. What I found sad about these responses is that the author(s) do not see potential for a different world. To say that we shouldn’t bother to point out injustice where we recognize it, is to accept its defeat absolutely. To say that we’re ‘throwing tantrums’ is to say that in demanding justice, we are asking for more than is deserved. To say we are unaware of how the world works is to suggest that this world actually works. And with everything in my being, I reject that.

I insist that this reality can be re-imagined, as difficult as that change will be. It is my truth that my fellow students’ plight has everything to do with me. While it remains convenient for the privileged to frame ourselves as not being part of the inequality problem, it’s already too late for us to escape our involvement. We can, however, act to dismantle our complicity. Humanity’s hope rests on this potential: on our ability to recognize that inequality is an injustice that no-one deserves.

*With that said, the fact that tertiary education is seen as the only path to economic emancipation says a lot about how the economic and education systems are just not working out. Tertiary education institutions cannot sustain the economic hopes of the entire population, especially seeing as they’re struggling to cope with their present demographic. Therefore, although I’m arguing for transformation within these institutions, this argument is limited because that the broader questions about inequality cannot be answered by an increase in working-class graduates alone.
** I think that the way Rhodes informed students about withholding results was in bad faith. At the same time, I recognize, as many have pointed out, that the university is facing a financial crisis and that, oksalayo, they have to get money from somewhere (while I await the revolution). Last semester, when the university was faced with the problem of sexual assault, the VC suggested that perhaps we should look to change Constitution since the problems students pointed out were not necessarily all in the university’s jurisdiction. He suggested that since a university is (allegedly) place for knowledge-production, maybe we could be innovative in tackling the problem. Somehow, faced with the financial crisis, we have not heard a similar story about innovation from UCKAR management. There have been no statements about re-directing the weight of problem at the government or at the wealthier corporates of South Africa. Thus, though I get that the money has to come from somewhere, I maintain that the university is anti-poor because by withholding results, they placed the burden of the problem on those who were already worst affected.

The difficulties of loving stand-up comedy

Comedian 1: Apparently, Jacob Zuma can’t name his successor – Why?  Is his successor a number?
Comedian 2: “I’m a white girl, so I can’t dance, but at least this is my real hair”. She adds, “If I’ve offended you, you can twerk on outta here.”

Comedians are often walking a very thin line – one joke could ruin the whole set, sometimes you have the wrong joke, sometimes it’s the wrong crowd. In such instances, how do you know when you are taking something too far? What are the limits? The pressing question (I’d imagine) is when is it too soon to make a joke about Oscar? How do you recover when the punchline misses the mark? These are the questions that keep me awake at night (well, sometimes).

I’m interested in the politics of stand-up comedy shows, mainly because they can seem so apolitical. Everyone is just there to laugh because laughing is nice and we want nice things. Then everyone goes home. Simple. But there is a lot going on, power-wise, if you can afford to sit in a big room and pay someone to make you laugh. There’s a lot going on when the audience is predominantly middle-class; when the jokes are about PVRs and panicking about crime. There’s a lot going on when the comedian talks about travels to the UK or Australia and his audience can relate.

At the same time, I’m interested in the politics of comedy because it’s making me uncomfortable to think about what I laugh at and what I don’t. On a day like today, when it seems like 100% of things that happen on Earth are horrible and not funny, I find myself questioning what (or who) I am really laughing at.

Fatigued by the unfunny

A popular formula in stand-up seems to be to appeal to people’s politically incorrect leanings: a lot of punchlines are about fat people, black people, women, queer people, etc. With this formula, you push the boundaries a bit, playing on established stereotypes. Maybe it’s popular because it’s safe: because it’s what people were thinking, but were too ‘afraid’ to express.

For me, this formula is lacking. All it really is, is throwing marginalized people under the bus. The method is tired, which is why the jokes are tired. The punchlines in this category – the ones about about Zuma, black women,  fat or disabled people – don’t amuse because they don’t require imagination. I’ve heard them already: the only difference is that before, they were dressed as slurs.

Stand-up is political to me because it’s a form of storytelling: it’s representation. I’ve been fascinated by the power of storytelling for a long time. Stories have the power to influence ideas and, in turn, human relations are determined by those ideas. That’s why it matters to me to think about who tells a story, how they tell it and for what purpose. Perhaps I’ve found myself disappointed with comedy because the stories being told don’t push enough buttons. A joke about Zuma overshadows the fact that apartheid is the reason he was unable to access education. The joke about black women twerking, told by a white woman, just reminds me that white women don’t have a great track record when it comes to showing up for black women.

Possibilities for challenging the status quo

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Last Sunday, I caught Tyson Ngubeni’s show The Dark Ages. In it, Ngubeni jokes about the colourism he’s experienced and his brushes with xenophobia, resulting from him being mistaken for a foreigner.

The stage was decorated with flags from different countries and marred by posters containing slurs like amakwerekwere. Again, I was on edge. This time it was because xenophobia and colourism are so touchy, I struggle to discuss them in day-to-day conversations. I sat nervously, trying to manage the weight of my expectations, wondering if Ngubeni would take the conversation where I hoped it would go: to the depth of the difficult place.

I thought The Dark Ages was honest and well-delivered. Ngubeni deviates from the tired-trope formula, using humour to ask questions, as opposed to playing on stereotypes. On top of that, The Dark Ages re-orients  the dominant narratives: it exposes the mistreatment foreign and dark-skinned Black people experience, explicitly. I think this critical approach to comedy is what I’ve been missing in the jokes about gay men or fat people or women. Ngubeni uses his positionality as a dark-skinned, South-African to challenge complicity. It’s refreshing, considering the multitude of comedians who poke fun at issues like racism and classism just because

Later on in the week, at The Very Big Comedy Show, I was intrigued by a group of black women, Thenx, who featured briefly. In their musical skit, they sang about the land issue, belting out – to a predominantly white audience – “You know it don’t belong to you”. The crowd seemed more than a bit uncomfortable when they started singing about the k-word, and I was shocked by their honesty.

After this encounter, I was compelled to watched their sketch comedy show Thenx Presents Aza-Nya is Five-To, which didn’t disappoint. In it, they address topical issues like patriarchy, media censorship and economic inequality through vibrant satire and song. Touching again on the matter of inequality and redistribution, they sang, “There’s a huge cake we’re supposed to share [but] the ones with the knife don’t care.”

Thenx’s confrontation is in your face, in all senses.  The peak of their performance is when one of the comedians addresses members of the audience directly, asking why we should ‘keep’ Aza-Nya (South Africa). A woman in the crowd answers, “Because it’s a nice country”. A younger man and his friends respond,”We need to work together. We need to build together”. Sharply, the comedian, asks “A nice country for who? Who is we?”. She’s not going to let us get away with falling back on the myth of the rainbow nation: the promise of unity which has obscured the face of injustice for so long. Rather, as Thenx closes, they call upon the ance-stars – Biko, Sobukwe, Malcom X – reminding us of the legacy of those who have struggled for the realization of true justice. “We know it’s time”, Thenx say.

There is so much room for more of this type of work. There’s so much potential to push the boundaries. I hope, that despite the constraints of trying to make people laugh for money, upcoming comedians can develop new concepts for their sets. As a fan of stand-up, I long for more of this kind of comedy: the type that pushes us all to question what we laugh at after the curtains fall. 

 

 

I’m not blonde on the inside

When I was in high school, my friends and I had a lot of inside jokes and quips that tied us together. Several of my friends at that time were white and blonde and one of the quips was that I was “blonde on the inside”. I’ve been thinking about that.

I was a black girl with black hair in a predominantly black country, so being blonde on the inside should not have made sense.[Kanjani, guys?!]. But it does make sense when I think about how whiteness is glorified like, everywhere, and how class privilege can really blur the line between ‘black’ and ‘white’ (to a point). Having access to particular privileges (notably a private education) meant that I had access to whiteness, and I became so well versed in it that I could be validated by my white friends as being one of them [on the inside].

[Lorato Palesa Modongo explains so excellently how being white is glorified in Botswana here ]

Choosing whiteness over blackness wasn’t a choice I was aware I was making. I felt a lot of shame in the parts of my life that didn’t seem Western or white enough so I just never mentioned them. The things I kept silent about were my way of distancing myself from blackness – an identity which, at the time, symbolized being uncivilized and backward. Being fluent in whiteness offered an illusion of safety. You could feel comfortable in your [proximity to] whiteness because it seemed to mean that you were just like ‘everyone else’ – all the ‘normal’ people you saw in films – recognized fully as a person. As I gained this ‘recognition’, I didn’t understand how it was almost always being gained at the expense of another Black person. For instance…

I remember a lot of my  classmates (of all races) used to laugh at videos of “black ghetto names” – videos mocking African-American people. As we laughed at names like Shaqonda and Bonquiqui, it never occurred to me that I was laughing at a fellow black person because I did not recognize ‘blackness’ in myself. I didn’t think I was like them. I just existed in that rainbow-nation space where race didn’t matter.

race

Being at university and learning about racism changed my sense of humour. Now when someone says the word ghetto or ratchet around me, I know that [poor] black people are being mocked. And the fact that I can be in a space where someone can mock a poor black person in my [black] presence is evidence that I am being accepted into that space because I am assumed to not be like ‘other’ black people.

I don’t laugh at Bonquiqui or Shaniqua’s names  anymore because mine shouldn’t be an exception. Mocking them is mocking all of us. I can’t laugh at things that are “ghetto” or “ratchet” anymore because it’s not funny that [black] people are poor. It’s a crisis.

Having class privilege as a black person basically means that you can afford to not suffer in the same ways many other black people do. On one hand, this is met by some people in white spaces assuming that you are only in university because they needed to fill up a quota or that if you have money, your parents didn’t work hard, it was all just B.E.E etc.

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On the other hand, it can mean that people will use your position as a way of shaming other black people  – using you/your family as evidence that black people can make it if they just work hard.

Asmany have written, instead of applauding poor [and in this case, black] people who overcome poverty, we need to look at ourselves and how we contribute to those conditions. Poor [black] people aren’t poor because they don’t work hard. They’re poor because we’re rich/middle class. We’re involved in it. We are a part of the capitalist exploitation that causes poverty and we need to take responsibility for that.

We can’t really keep having conversations where we just blame Zuma for stuff. I’m not a fan of Zuma either but before we talk about Zuma or how #ZumaMustFall, can we please have some serious conversations about apartheid and how we have to deal with its mess? Let’s talk about how some of your family members are overtly racist and you don’t know how to confront them about it. Or about how trippy it is to spend like 20 years of our lives ‘not seeing colour’ only to discover that not seeing colour is part of the problem? Let’s talk about how society rewards you for being white and how the flipside of that privilege is a black person not getting the benefit of the doubt?

Sidenote: It’s weird for me that every time I post a Facebook status about racism, suddenly, it’s like I don’t have white friends on Facebook :/ Are white people just not seeing those statuses or ….?  It’s cool if you don’t want to comment on my status, I can understand why. But at the same time, why are so few white people writing their own statuses about racism? We really need to talk, y’all. And when I say we, I mean, all of us but also YOU because racism isn’t going to go away until we all actually start dealing with it 😦 

The topic of racism is really uncomfortable but I’d rather be openly uncomfortable with you than be uncomfortable because you haven’t said a single thing about Marikana and now I have to wonder what that silence means.

We’re at a point where we can’t use our interracial friendships as evidence that we are not racist. As Sisonke Msimang said, “If you’re friends with white people who don’t get it, then you’re not friends”.

I want to be friends but first, I need you to know that I’m not blonde on the inside. I’m black and I am not hiding it anymore.

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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.

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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.