South Africa

South Africa

J’accuse: Life after the #RUReferencelist

#RUReferenceList protest at Rhodes.University.Photo from Archive Photo of #RUReferenceList protest by Rhodes University.

Predators rely on camouflage, fear and invisibility to operate. We know that the men who beat, rape and murder women in South Africa live among us. Statistics tell us they are our fathers, our boyfriends, our brothers, our uncles, our neighbours, our pastors. Their camouflage is their very ordinariness, their protection the power imbalance in a hyper-masculine age, their freedom an unreliable justice system. So what happens if you are a young man who finds himself exposed on a list of alleged rapists that is circulated publicly? And what if you claim you are innocent? By MARIANNE THAMM.

Discussion with fellow feminist before decision to interview the accused.

You can’t talk to him. You will negate the experiences of everyone who has survived sexual assault and rape everywhere. All it will do is shift the focus from the real problem which is systemic rape, violence, inequality and patriarchy.”

But he says he is innocent. Read his statement. He appears to be a young man steeped in gender politics and intersectionality. He says all the right things, he appears to understand his position as a white male, he understands that whichever way you look at this he is always at an advantage. I have to try to understand.”

Stuart Hoosen-Lewis was at home with his wife Mishka in Johannesburg on 17 April when the #RUReferenceList began trending on social media. The couple had married in March and had just moved into their first flat.

Someone called that night to say that ‘your name is on a screen grab’ and then we watched the whole thing happening,” Hoosen-Lewis told Daily Maverick.

The list of current and past students accused of rape and sexual assault had been released on the RU Queer Confessions, Questions and Crushes Facebook page with the hashtag #RUReferenceList. It was later shared to the Rhodes SRC Facebook page which in turn led to a call for students to meet at the Steve Biko Building. The accusers of the 11 men whose names appeared on the list were anonymous.

Afterwards, students marched to various residences in an attempt, en masse, to locate some of the men named on the list. One was held hostage by the group while Vice-Chancellor Sizwe Mabizela and Director of Student Affairs, Colleen Vassiliou, tried to negotiate his release. By 08:00 the following morning police were called in to rescue the man.

For a week the anti-rape uprising, for the first time in the country’s history, shut down the campus with students and supportive staff clashing violently with police who fired rubber bullets and arrested several protesters. The demand from the uprising was that RU immediately suspend those listed.

But more than that, the protests and the release of the list resonated deeply with many South Africans battered and bruised from decades of horrific statistics on rape, domestic violence, sexual abuse and murder. Decades of femicide in a constitutional democracy.

It felt like the spark of a counterculture aimed at redefining the rules, a culture where potential rapists and abusers might become too afraid to rape and abuse for fear of the light of exposure, for fear that their camouflage and their cover had been blown.

Stuart, 22, had spent four years at Rhodes, had graduated in 2015 with a BA Honours in Journalism and had begun working as a journalist for the Daily Vox. Mishka, who has an MA in Creative Writing from Rhodes, had just launched her first book, Call it a Difficult Night, at the Time of the Writer festival in Durban. She is, according to her biography, studying anthropology with “special interests in gender violence, trauma and folklore”.

She delivered a searing opening address at the festival, telling the audience:

I am a coloured girl who was raped by a white man in my early adolescence. I know that it wounded me, that it stays with me to this day. I also know it’s history. The archetype of the colonial encounter. I also know it wasn’t just that. The man was a fascist. He was also a husband to a wife. Father to children. And I was a coloured girl from Newclare who won scholarships to rich, white schools where I could learn to write. I loved cherry lipgloss, and had a crush on Enrique Iglesias (please don’t judge me), I was a little girl whose laugh scared the birds.”

During his four years at Rhodes, Stuart had worked as a freelance journalist for various publications as well as helping for three years to organise Sexual Violence = Silence Protests at the university.

On Twitter his username is Volksveraaier (Traitor to the Nation) Thembi_Lewis and he describes himself as a “Journo. Filmmaker. Poet. Muslim. Political. Polyamorous. Tattooed. He/him.”

He is is, by all accounts, an intersectional, cisgender millennial man. He spells women “womxn”, he has a Xhosa middle name, he is Muslim, he appears to grasp white privilege. He is a part of the national Fallist movement. He talks the talk, he walks the walk.

So, do you know why you are on the list?”

It is hard for me to say why. A few years ago there was an allegation against me, it was investigated but the result was that there was nothing to pursue. There are people with axes to grind against me. I have not been the best boyfriend in the past. I have lied, cheated and been manipulative. I may be young and I may have been a kak boyfriend but I am not a rapist,” said Hoosen-Lewis.

This is shameful history, he says, that he owns and that he has shared with his former partners including his wife.

The allegations have turned his life upside down, his employers have placed him on leave of absence, and many of his friends who worked with him in the area of gender violence have “stepped away”.

They have chosen to support the survivors first. They have told me they have had to step away from me because of this, and I understand this,” he told Daily Maverick.

Shortly after the publication of the list Hoosen-Lewis issued a statement:

On Sunday 17 April, it was brought to my attention that I was named on the #RUReferenceList, the implication being that I am guilty of the rape and/or sexual assault of a womxn. This statement serves to declare that I am not guilty of any such crime but also to address the climate of rape culture in which these allegations have been made.

This is a difficult statement to make because, no matter how I address this issue, the only winner will be rape culture, which is one of the central issues I try, in my work and in my personal life, to challenge.

I have deliberately delayed my response to this issue. If this were affecting just me, I would have responded immediately but I have also had to consider the possible effects on my wife, my family, my friends, and my employers, so I have sought legal advice in order to protect them as far as is possible.

It would be easy to simply state that I have never been found guilty of such a crime, but the reality, as any rape survivor knows, is that rape is under-reported and difficult to prosecute, and therefore relying on just that fact would make me complicit in the rape culture pervading our criminal justice system. It would also be an insult to rape survivors who have been unable to secure convictions, because it would amount to a denial of their lived experiences.”

He goes on to state that in denying his culpability “my right to a presumption of innocence is respected. I will be invoking language which may trigger rape survivors and reinforce the system that alienates them. I know that there are so-called Men’s Rights Activists who would be eager to turn me into some kind of poster child for their belief that men are regularly ‘falsely’ accused. I reject any such attempt. If you’re sending me support because you fall into that category, please don’t. I want nothing to do with your kind.”

A week after the #RUReferenceList uprising Simamkele Dlakavu wrote in City Press,“When the #RUReferenceList protest broke out on Sunday night, those of us who were far away stayed up to follow this historic moment. Many young women and rape survivors on my Twitter timeline were deeply triggered. We sent each other direct messages on Twitter, ‘Are you okay?’, knowing very well we were not. ‘I can’t stop crying,’ came a reply. But beyond the tears, we felt affirmed, proud because the women at the university currently known as Rhodes were standing up for all of us. When they went to fetch those men who the list accused of committing rape, they were ensuring that there is a ‘social cost’ to rape.”

Pumla Dineo Gqola in her book Rape: A South African Nightmare also reminds us there is no social cost for men who rape or who are accused of or convicted of rape. Jacob Zuma went on to become president of South Africa after he was acquitted on charges of raping Kwezi, as she came to be known, the daughter of one of his exiled comrades.

This Hoosen-Lewis also apparently understands.

At the end of the day, there are no winners here. The system which the publishers of the list are fighting against is what it is: a system rigged against victims of sexual violence, and one that enables their persecution and repeated victimisation by placing rape survivors on trial for virtually anything from their clothing and behaviour to their sobriety and their past. I reject that system, as I always have done and will continue to do.

To this end, the only response I can offer in all conscience is to deny that I have done anything which warrants my inclusion on such a list. I do so knowing that this accusation will remain in the ether for the rest of my life, and knowing that I can do very little about that, without forcing an accuser to go public and to court and, in doing so, put herself on trial. I also do so knowing that any harm which this has done to me personally, to my relationships with my wife, family, friends and employers, is a fraction of the trauma incurred by rape survivors whose experiences of abuse, more often than not, go unbelieved.”

He added that the uncomfortable irony of the list is that “the men named on it have a right to be believed innocent until proven guilty, and the chance to defend themselves against any accusations brought against them. This system, however, does not extend these same conditions to victims of sexual violence”.

If his accuser wished to pursue the investigation “through systems that are less destructive to rape survivors and have proven track records of finding justice”, Stuart said he would co-operate without question. These organisations included the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Court and Access to Justice.

Mishka too has been drawn into the impossible battleground as some have accused her of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome (such as trusting your kidnapper, as in the Patty Hearst case) due to her unequivocal support of her husband.

It has come to my attention that several people accusing my husband, Stuart Hoosen-Lewis, are also speaking about me in ways I find deplorable, disempowering, violent, and exploitative – as a woman, as a survivor of repeated rape and sexual assault, and as a woman of colour. I have already stated my unequivocal support of my husband and his statement released a week ago, but the same ‘activists’ who claim to champion the voices of womxn have conveniently decided to ignore that statement, to ignore my voice, and my agency, in order to further their own agenda. They have spoken about me online as his ‘poor wife’, and spoken of rescuing me from him, defining me only in relation to a man – ignoring my own humanity and my capacity to make informed decisions about my life and who I give my support to.”

Mishka said she would “lay down my life down to assert my husband’s innocence” and that as a “grown woman, a survivor of repeated rape and abuse at the hands of others, I stand by Stuart with all my heart, asserting his innocence. I do not need a group of womxn, the leaders of whom are white womxn, to talk about me on a public platform as a victim in need of saving, to dismiss my support of my husband as ‘so sad’ without doing me and themselves the respect of critically listening and examining the morass of hearsay and vague allegations that have characterised the campaign against him.”

Miska says the young family’s livelihood has been threatened “because of persistent online pressure towards his place of work, working off of anonymous allegations, the substance and source of which are vague and/or nonexistent. The amount of pressure and distress this has placed on us as a family and on me and the other womxn who support us so bravely, as survivors of repeated rape and assault ourselves, to have my husband’s name publicly smeared and associated with rape, is an act of violence and violation I do not have sufficient words to describe”.

I return to the discussion at the start with a fellow feminist:

Why are you giving him a voice? Have the women who have been raped been given a voice? Do you believe him?”

I don’t know. And that is the tragedy here. If he were my son I would want him to face the charges and hope that justice will prevail. But we know women find no justice in the courts. It is all just so fucked up.”

You can’t make a victim of one man who might be falsely accused. You can’t make him the focus.”

But is he a victim? Will he ever be? He’ll survive this relatively intact. Especially since he was the only one of the 11 accused to issue a public statement about it.”

Perhaps best then to end with Stuart’s voice: “Right now, I find myself in an impossible situation. I cannot answer this accusation as it is anonymous and its details have not been made public. I cannot demand that my accuser comes forward, as I cannot forcibly expose her to this thoroughly broken and often trauma-inducing system. I can only proclaim my innocence of the allegation of which I am accused, while acknowledging that, as a man, I occupy a privileged position in an unequal society that is built on rape culture, patriarchy, and the oppression of womxn.” DM

Photo of #RUReferenceList protest by Rhodes University.


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