Rhodes rages after suicide

It rained in Makhanda on Tuesday morning but still hundreds of students, staff and lecturers made the solemn march to the Settlers’ Monument, where Rhodes University holds its graduation ceremonies. Khensani Maseko would have been capped there next year. It would have been a happy affair.

Tuesday was anything but happy. Anger turned into reflective mourning; it was what students described as a “heavy” day.

News of her death hit Rhodes University’s active social media pages over the weekend.

Maseko (23) died of suicide at her home in Alberton last Friday, four days after reporting to the university that she had been raped by her ex-boyfriend.

The university community said they are disillusioned with how Rhodes has addressed sexual violence but the institution says an elaborate system has been implemented to counter it.

In an Instagram post on Friday, Maseko had posted her date of birth, 24.07.1995, and the date of the post, 3.08.2018, with the caption:“No one deserves to be raped.”

Her funeral was held in Johannesburg on Thursday, Women’s Day.

Her family, who travelled from Johannesburg to the university after she reported the rapeand then returned home with her, also alluded to the incident in their statement.

“We would like to explicitly express that we condemn, in the strongest possible terms, any form of violence and abuse against women and more particularly rape against women.”

A third-year student, referring to the publication in 2016 of a list of 11 alleged sexual offenders on social media and the wave of student protests that followed, said: “When the news of her [Maseko’s] death came out, the atmosphere quickly became very similar to how it was during #RUReferenceList in 2016.”

READ MORE: Rhodes SRC calls for academic shutdown in honour of student’s death

On the night of April 17 that year, a group of students banged on doors in male residences in search of the men named. Students wanted the university’s management to expel them. Three men were forced from their rooms and were held by the group.

The university applied for, and was granted, an interdict against those “engaging in unlawful activities” and those “associating themselves” with such activities. In 2017, the university expelled two of the protesters afteran internal disciplinary process.

The university said the students were not excluded for participating in the protest but for the common-law crimes of kidnap and assault. None of the men who were removed from their residences after being named on the reference list was subsequently found guilty of sexual misconduct by the university.

On Monday, the 2016 interdict and subsequent expulsions loomed over the students’ actions.They were wary of protesting, but when they discovered that the interdict had expired they resolved to shut down the university.

“People were angry. They wanted a form of justice and the man who committed the crime to be taken out of the university — some kind of accountability,” said the third-year student, who asked not to be named.

READ MORE: Strike down rape culture

University management suspended lectures on Monday and Tuesday “to allow the university community time to mourn and to provide counselling and other interventions”.

“We as a society have failed her [Maseko] in that we have not brought up young men who know how to love, respect and treat women,” Rhodes vice-chancellor Sizwe Mabizela said at Tuesday’s march.

He called on everyone to view Maseko’s death as “a significant turning point” and for the university and society to redouble its efforts to “eradicate the scourge of sexual and gender-based violence in our society”.

The university later announced that its management was working with the police and the National Prosecuting Authority to push for an inquest into Maseko’s death.

The university also announced that it had suspended Maseko’s alleged rapist on Monday morning.

But the student described the university’s efforts in the aftermath of Maseko’s death as “disingenuous” and said the management was trying to save face after failing to make meaningful changes toits policies after#RUReferenceList.

In a report on gender transformation at universities for 2015-2016, the Commission for Gender Equality questioned why, despite all the policies Rhodes has in place, things seemed not to have changed, particularly with regard to gender-based violence on campus.

Rhodes was included in the study because of the highly publicised 2016 protests.

Rhodes student representative council president Nhlakanipho Mahlangu said she was not sure what the university had achieved with its sexual assault policy since then.

“What I do know is that the same feelings that surrounded the 2016 protests still exist among the student body, that feeling of not being safe.

“That alone is a failure on the part of university management and perhaps even of student leadership.”

Mahlangu said some of the conversations organised on campus this week had focused on how the student body needed to keep holding the university management to account on policy recommendations.

A task team comprising students and staff, set up in 2016, made 93 recommendations on the university’s sexual assault policies.

However, a former Rhodes student who was closely linked to the #RUReferenceList protests said that, although the university management had said it was implementing the recommendations, it had never publicly specified which of the recommendations or how they were being implemented.

“Even if they have done what they have promised, they have never been open about the changes they have made,” said the former student, who asked not to be named.

Rhodes spokesperson Veliswa Mhlope said one of the recommendations that had been put in place was to review the university’s sexual harassment policy and for an immediate “no contact” order to be issued to alleged perpetrators.

She did not say whether the other 92 recommendations had been or were being implemented.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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