'We also need radical change in what is socially accepted and to undo power relationships that enable and protect perpetrators of sexual violence,' writes Philip Machanick
For Rhodes University, there is another dimension to the difficult problem of undoing rape culture — a deep distrust that has developed between parts of the university community, particularly since relations broke down during the 2016 protests and subsequent police interventions. What we need is a truth and reconciliation process that will end the enmity and make it possible to build a lasting solution.
On one side we have the view that the 2016 protest leaders were brave activists who forced the university to act on a festering wound and who were punished worse than rapists; on the other we have the view that they were criminals exploiting a noble cause for nefarious ends. An indication that such differences have not subsided is a Twitter account “Rhodes Trashboys” that appeared on August 10 outing stories of sexual abuse before disappearing.
It is sad that the university administration has become deeply defensive, as if this is the only organisation to have this problem. Rape culture is a worldwide problem as evidenced by events such as the charges against American film producer Harvey Weinstein and other major cultural and political figures.
In 2016, I had most of the conventional views: you can’t call someone a rapist unless they are convicted; it is a police matter so why is the university involved, and so on.
While the university was shut down by protests, I walked around and spoke to people and was shocked by the number talking about “their rapist” and other rape experiences.
I also heard stories such as a person who was accused of rape and the complainant was offered mediation as an alternative to prosecution.
During the protests, survivors compared notes and discovered that the same perpetrator was allowed the option of mediation with three different victims. This raised for me more difficult questions such as: Mediation? How is that appropriate for a serious criminal offence?
When the university announced a sexual violence task team, I signed up, ignorant though I was of the issues, because I could not stand on the sidelines. Possibly as a result of my informal conversations, I was invited to chair the subtask team on local and national issues, co-chaired by a student. I was also on the education subtask team.
I do not have space here to report everything I learnt but I would like to outline a few key points that could inform the current debate, particularly in the wake of the sad loss of one of our students, Khensani Maseko.
The first discovery I made was why a university should deal with sexual violence. The police and prosecution system do a poor job in general of prosecuting rape cases. The conviction rate of those that do make it to the courts masks the real story: those that are not reported. Despite government policy to the contrary, sympathetic handling of rape cases is more the exception than the rule. I illustrate this with a case subsequent to my task team work. A student was raped and was taken to the local government hospital (a necessary step to prosecute) by a supportive staff member. Seven hours later, a doctor showed up and gave the student a very unsympathetic examination. And that was the end of that.
Who needs to be re-traumatised by an unsympathetic investigation and prosecution?
Then, there is the question of why the university should do something like “mediation”. The logic is that it gives some sort of closure to the survivor and makes the perpetrator face up to what they did. It may be unsatisfactory but it is better than nothing, particularly when both parties are still in the institution. What I found strange was that the same perpetrator could be offered this option three times.
What follows exemplifies the defensive attitude of the administration. If you have done no wrong, you need not change.
The task team met the university discipline team to try to reach commonality on options. An idea being considered, and that made it into the final report, was to include restorative and reparative justice in the mix of options. We put this idea and others to the lawyers.
A point I addressed was mediation without consequences for re-offending. I suggested that a condition of allowing mediation was that any repeat offence would be a serious discipline violation. The lawyers argued that you cannot have an offence without a complainant in any subsequent sanction, which seemed to me ridiculous because the offence would be against the agreement with the university – and that missed the point of rape survivors’ need to avoid being re-traumatised.
After one meeting in which no progress was made, we had another set up in which I hoped that the discipline team would come back with their own ideas if they did not like ours. At the follow-up meeting, the discipline team simply failed to show up.
After the task team wrapped up its report in December 2016, it was handed over to a committee, the composition of which was not made public. The only visible change was three prosecutions in 2017 that resulted in lengthy exclusions. These were conducted much more sympathetically than previously.
I have yet to see a comprehensive strategy based on thetask team report and its limited implementation is being challenged in the university senate.
Now, we have the loss of Khensani.
The point of the task team was to avoid another 2016. And also to switch the balance to supporting rape survivors rather than perpetuating a culture of providing cover for the perpetrator.
We also need radical change in what is socially accepted and to undo power relationships that enable and protect perpetrators of sexual violence. We need to stop victim blaming and providing sociocultural cover for perpetrators who somehow become the victim (Stanford University rapist Brock Turner lost his opportunity to swim in the Olympics; how sad).
All of that means deep culture change. And that is really hard in a university. Contrary to the image many universities portray, a university is a deeply conservative institution, particularly when its own institutional culture is challenged. We are not going to get there without trust – and that should be the starting point.
You can read the task team report, We Will Not Be Silenced: A Three-Pronged Justice Approach To Sexual Offences And Rape Culture At Rhodes University/Uckar.
Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University