History is made up of superheroes – men and women who do remarkable things and claim their rightful space in the history books. The current wave of student movements across South Africa is no different.
But what these books tend to leave out is that some superhero justice leagues contain villains in disguise.
In a Facebook post last week, a woman who is part of the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town said she was raped by a “fellow comrade” at Azania House.
This is certainly not the first or only time we have heard of sexual assault occurring in socially conscious movements. It is not the first time that women find themselves on the receiving end of violence in spaces that are meant to be safe, empowering and liberating.
From historically powerful movements such as South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, where sexual violence was used as a tool for political and social control, to the Egyptian revolution in 2013, where 80 cases of sexual assault in Tahrir Square were reported in just one day, women have remained unsafe.
And, when they have tried to raise these issues in the movements they belong to, they have faced resistance.
Yes, social-change movements such as #RhodesMustFall are doing amazing work, but what is the point of building a lovely new house if it is filthy inside? And what does it say about those members in the movement if they can turn a blind eye to injustice so close to home?
A naming and shaming campaign (#RapeAtAzania) began online after the UCT student identified her attacker and his photo was circulated. Some have called the exposure of the “alleged” rapist before his possible conviction a “witch-hunt”; they argue that the movement is being hindered and distracted by people raising matters that “have nothing to do with what we are fighting for”.
Worse, women who raise issues of sexual harassment and assault are told not to cause divisions among their comrades. As a transgender woman explained of her experience in the #RhodesMustFall movement: “Women must face violence on two fronts, from society filled with the ills they fight and from those who they fight alongside.”
Despite concerns about the possible legal implications of naming an accused before they are convicted, we need to root out the cancers in these movements before they infect society in the future. Those who purport to fight for a greater good must be stopped before they can prove to be a greater evil, before they end up as rapists, thieves and all manner of miscreants in powerful positions.
Highlighting the occurrence of sexual violence in these movements is, in a larger sense, a public good.
It is difficult to argue that those who ignore the pain or injustice in their own realms can be trusted in the public realm, in positions of power. I do not only mean the alleged perpetrators but also those cowards who seek to cover up these disturbing incidents in the name of “solidarity”.
What is the good of making sure that fees have fallen if women are scared to walk to the library at night in case they are assaulted and, worse, have no support from the very movements they endorse?
These are moments in history that do not exist in a vacuum; they are a microcosm of both the good and the bad in our society.
Social movements, especially student-based ones, that seek to uphold and ensure the rights they fight for must first make sure that they, too, adhere to justice.
Kagure Mugo is the cofounder and curator of the HolaAfrica! blog