Place of learning is a female fear factory
A prestigious ocean sciences campus was unveiled, a new logo revealed, great speeches were made, red ribbons were cut and babies kissed. It was flowers and roses.
A month later, reality kicked in at Nelson Mandela University (NMU). A moron walks unchecked in the full glare of CCTV cameras into the computer laboratory of the Second Avenue campus at night and rapes two black women students.
This sparked a week of protests. Students demanded that senior security staff be removed and the security detail on the campus increased. This was commendable for it shows that students’ social consciousness and sense of solidarity have grown in the past two years. They showed concern about the plight of another person, a value of collectiveness in an environment that is administratively and academically imbedded in individualism.
But the incident also proved that universities are a place of rape.
Most black students at NMU come from disadvantaged communities in the Eastern Cape and are subsidised by state bursaries and loans from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). More than 90% of students stay off campus because of the shortage of on-campus beds, which is the result of the unpreparedness of this former white minority institution to accommodate the progressive post-1994 enrolments. For basic necessities such as transport, laptops, food, information, toiletries, clothing and textbooks, black students are dependent on the NSFAS, government and university to provide them. Therefore, having students, black women in particular, studying in a computer laboratory at night is not surprising because the NSFAS and university fail to provide laptops on time, printing material and wi-fi in students’ rooms, be they on or off campus.
Also, the administrative culture of the university is still orientated towards providing higher education to men, white and middle-income students. For instance, security is heavily deployed during the day to control vehicles and provide protection in buildings and at conferences, all of which are associated and prioritised by middle-income, white and male students and staff.
Less security is provided for the protection of those who are walking, studying in libraries and laboratories and using public transport — all things associated with poor, black and women students.
There are also many examples of racist and classist administration in university departments, which is keenly felt by black, women and poor students. This demonstrates that the student profile of the university has changed drastically whereas the middle-management profile has remained the same. The new generation of students is still under the control of the old, uncaring bureaucratic administration. Hence, the call by students for the removal of the director of protection services is valid but totally misunderstood by the racist old guard at the university.
The ever-increasing number of black student enrolments is driven by the perception that apartheid minority rule led to the humiliating proletarianisation of the black family and, therefore, a university qualification is an exit path from that to success characterised by employment, comfort and an improved socioeconomic standard of living. This is what makes it worthwhile for families, businesses and the government to invest heavily in universities.
They are one of the biggest employers and, in the poor Eastern Cape, which has the universities of Fort Hare, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, millions of families depend on them. Therefore, anything that threatens the wellbeing of black women students, such as rape, should alert all stakeholders to take serious action against it.
As Professor Pumla Gqola puts it, rape is violence. Rape is violence because it is force intended to hurt, damage and dehumanise someone. Rape is violence used to authorise and maintain power and control over another person. Patriarchy causes it to happen constantly.
Academic Elisabet le Roux argues that the closed nature of universities, with their established practices and norms, like prisons and the military, further enables rape to take place.
When something happens at a university, it is likely to remain within its walls. Abuse and injustice are a threat to its reputation.
Lastly, the institutional culture of universities celebrates rape. The university and liquor businesses in student cities endorse events with promotions such as “first 100 ladies get free entrance and drinks”. This advances the narrative that the purpose of women is for their nonconsensual entertainment of men after their senses have been dulled with alcohol. The future lawyers, psychologists, scientists and business professionals trained at a university with this institutional culture learn that the purpose of women’s bodies is to satisfy men. They get socialised to believe in the normalisation of rape.
In the case of the NMU, although the rapist may be arrested and face trial, the painful reality is that women students, apart from the daily violent experience of being a student in an alienating institution, must always be on the lookout for rapists.
For them, the NMU should be a free space for learning. Instead it has become a female fear factory.
Pedro Mzileni is a master’s sociology student and students’ representative council president at Nelson Mandela University