​Challenging the culture of rape at Rhodes

For Zikhona*, a fourth-year student at Rhodes University, life before the Reference List protests was nightmarish. As she moved around the campus, Zikhona, who chose not to use her real name, battled to escape reminders of the student whom she says raped her.

“It was suffocating,” she says. “Running into my perpetrator, seeing him on posters all over campus, hearing a close friend was sleeping with him. All this was so silencing.”

For some rape survivors, Rhodes’s Silent Protest against sexual violence, held annually since 2007, provided a much-needed chance to breathe. But, even in this pocket of supposed safety, another student, Lisa*, could not bring herself to speak about what had happened to her. Lisa, now pursuing her postgraduate studies, says: “My rapist was friends with my friends, and was in my dining hall. He wore a [Silent Protest] solidarity T-shirt and took pictures during the protest.”

‘We will not be silenced’
In April last year, a student collective resolved to challenge the silence about rape. Through the #Chapter212 poster campaign, they detailed alleged instances of the university’s failure to address sexual violence: the inadequate sexual assault policy, the insensitive treatment of survivors who had reported their cases and the university’s failure to expel perpetrators.

Zikhona loved the campaign. “I was so happy that this wasn’t just my secret — that it wasn’t just something I discuss with my friends in dark corners, never in public,” she says.

The #Chapter212 posters were swiftly removed by Rhodes’s campus protection unit. After negotiations with Rhodes staff members, the students who initiated the campaign were allowed to repost them. The university released a statement encouraging students who had experienced sexual violence to report their cases through the university’s internal structures.

Seeing the posters removed knocked Lisa’s confidence in the university’s willingness to deal with rape cases. She says: “The reaction to survivors speaking out from management physically hurt. [It hurt] that it was higher priority to maintain a good, safe, community-based university image.”

Without explanation, the posters were removed again later that week.

Author and academic Pumla Gqola wrote: “We can undo [gender violence] only by unmasking the collective denial, that lie that we tell about how we do not know who is abusing and raping.”

Zikhona first saw the Reference List — of 11 men’s names and no allegations — when a friend tagged her in the comments of the Facebook post. It has since been deleted.

Lisa went into shock when a friend sent her the list. “I was initially confused by why the list was so short.”

Bizan’iFire brigade, kuyatsha
As the Reference List engulfed social media that Sunday night, students mobilised: fetching the named students from their residences so they could respond to the list.

Siphokazi*, a second-year student who prefers to remain anonymous and who was involved in the demonstrations, recalls the atmosphere: “People were shocked, angry. They wanted justice. That’s why they went from res.”

Shortly after this, Rhodes management and the police arrived on campus. They eventually defused the situation, negotiating for the accused students’ release. In the midst of this, students tabled a list of demands, including policy changes and the suspension of alleged perpetrators from residences.

The next morning, students disrupted lectures. “Disrupting academics was so that we could engage [in discussions],” says Siphokazi. “As important as the #RUReferenceList was, people still went to class. Because they were there, why not stop the academic project and talk? “We can’t be talking when half of the school is in lectures. The university needs to come to a standstill because [rape culture] is a crisis.”

That afternoon, Rhodes vice-chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela responded to student demands, saying the university would convene a task team to address sexual violence. He also said the list was unconstitutional, adding that no action could be taken against accused students until they were charged and found guilty. Dissatisfied by this, the students continued their protests.

Zikhona says she supported the protests: “It’s time for these things to be solved. Victims can’t be living in the shadows like it’s their fault.”

Siphokazi was glad that the Reference List had opened up the conversation on rape. She says: “We must understand that, in society, not just as Rhodes, rape is treated as something that needs to be hidden.”

“The Reference List got people to realise what rape culture is.”

Lisa concurs: “The fact is, it took a list of people, with the acknowledgement that there are more than those names on the list, to wake up the university.”

Siyaya, siyaya, siyaya noma kubi
A few days after they began, lecture disruptions were subdued when the institution filed an interdict. The interdict was issued against three student protesters, the student representative council (SRC) and anyone engaging in or associating themselves with unlawful activities on campus. The interdict also prevented students from “disrupting the academic project”.

The interdict was filed “after numerous failed attempts at containing an escalating and volatile situation on campus and only as a way to safeguard the safety and security of its community and property”, according to the institution.

Siphokazi says, for her and others involved in the protests, the interdict was demobilising. “It was scary because we didn’t know what the interdict really meant. We weren’t sure if it meant we were going to get arrested.”

The interdict further strained relations between students and management. “It took everyone by surprise that the university, when we were trying to talk to them about this, decided to take out an interdict to shut us up,” Siphokazi says. “That’s exactly what that interdict was doing. It was for us to keep quiet, to go back to class and pretend as if everything is okay.”

Siphokazi felt she had to keep fighting. During the protests, she says she spoke to victims of sexual assault, many of whom confided in her about their experiences. “I wanted them to know they were believed, that it wasn’t their fault.”

The protests also led Siphokazi to confront rape culture on a more personal level. “#RUReferenceList is when I realised [for the first time] I had been raped,” she says. “It was painful.”

‘Sometimes the wound is by the healer’
Siphokazi threw herself into the protests. “I was there every day because for me, it was healing. It made me forget and eventually, it made me talk.”

The experience was not without complexity: “Having people talk about their experiences, it doesn’t necessarily encourage you or heal you. Some people don’t want to talk. Some people just want to forget. That’s also understandable.”

Although Siphokazi found solace in the protests, Lisa says it was “three weeks of hell.” She was confused: “The man who raped me was loudly supporting women’s rights, [saying] how survivors should be believed.” The protest itself was jarring: “The noise, the shouting, the fear for the police.” Lisa felt weakened by all the anger. “All I wanted was to feel safe, not just on campus, but in my own head and in my own body.”

The disruption of academic spaces, Lisa’s safe haven, added to the anxiety. “It made me feel threatened when I already was not coping.”

Another student, Ashley*, found what lay ahead after the protests — the return to “business as usual” — was a struggle. Now studying towards their post-graduate degree, Ashley says: “Having been raped in my first year, one of the hardest things for me was not getting the academic support I needed during that time, having requests for extensions rejected. Going through the kind of emotional process of the protest, and having to do academic work through that, was nostalgically painful.”

The students say the university could have responded better to the protests. Lisa says: “The best response should not have been a knee-jerk interdict, with police and inducing panic.” Lisa says victims should have been prioritised: “I would’ve liked them to play a more proactive role in getting perpetrators off campus and caring for survivors. It’s sad how their ‘we believe you’ is so conditional. I wish Rhodes management had handled the protest with more heart.”

The institution’s response angered Siphokazi. “I would have liked management to involve themselves in conversations about rape culture, instead of blocking us, instead of refusing to meet and refusing to talk.”

In Ashley’s view, “the only thing that seems to have been done is the initiation of task teams … [resulting in] a problematic report with suggestions. I think the members of Rhodes management themselves are part of the problem. A lot of the problematic things that were said were by [them].”

Lisa says there still needs to be a shift in how the university approaches sexual violence. “For so long, we’ve educated on how not to get raped. We’ve treated survivors like they’re different, when all we want is to be normal again and not to have to cry in the dining hall bathroom because they just had to stand in the same line as the man who raped them.” A fresh approach is needed, she says: “We have to offer real support to survivors.”

Ashley points out that the protests’ focus on policy change is important, but assumes victims’ desire to take legal action. For them, transformation should be more inclusive, taking into account survivors’ different experiences and wishes.

Siphokazi adds that it is vital to create a more supportive academic environment, particularly considering the emotional toll of rape. “Your whole life comes to a stand-still — you just close in. It takes up your entire being so, definitely, your academics will be jeopardised.”

Ashley says educating staff on rape culture could make a difference — by reducing the perpetuation of it in the curriculum and preparing staff to respond sensitively to students. In addition, says Ashley, Rhodes could create alternative ways for students, who are in lectures with the rape perpetrators, to get access to course materials. “The absence of attempts to actively challenge rape culture in a substantial way speaks more to the institutional culture than to an absence of options.”

One year after the #RUReferenceList protests, Zikhona says: “My perpetrator is gone so I can breathe a bit easier” but Rhodes “is still not a welcoming space. It doesn’t feel like home. One just goes to classes and goes home, away from the toxic energy of campus.”

Siphokazi says: “Rhodes is still as draining as it was during the protests. I still feel isolated and excluded, not only as a black person, not only as a poor person but as a woman.”

For Ashley, little has changed: “While there may be more people challenging rape culture, it seems to be on a relatively small scale.”

Lisa says: “If anything, Rhodes has become more obviously nonsupportive.” But what has helped her is “knowing who is publicly supportive of survivors”, showing her which staff members to turn to when in need. She adds: “For a while after the protest, I thought some attitudes had changed. But drinking clubs still sing songs about raping women.”

What Rhodes has done
In a statement released onMarch 30 this year, the institution noted with concern recent activities on campus to deal with alleged rapists. It said such activities could easily spiral out of control and encouraged students to rather report rape cases through the university’s legitimate structures. It was through these channels, since 2016, perpetrators had been excluded from the university.

The institution emphasised that following such channels was necessary to ensure “justice is served and that the rights of all are respected and upheld”.

In another statement, on April 3, the university said all cases emanating from the Reference List had been finalised.

The institution refutes claims that it has done nothing about dealing with sexual violence on campus.

It has contacted the Gender Commission to run workshops on campus and is working with the SRC to obtain feedback from students. And it will be monitoring the implementation of an action plan, proposed by the sexual violence task team established last year.

*Names have been changed
Gorata Chengeta is a former Rhodes University student. She was involved in the Silent Protest planning committee, the #Chapter212 collective and the #RUReferenceList protests

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