Yolanda Dyantyi, who is from Soweto, was in the final year of her BA degree in April 2017 when what she described as a “spontaneous protest” against rape culture started at Rhodes University. She said in papers before court that she was one of about 200 students and staff members who joined the protest.
“We were angry at the environment of pervasive sexual violence including rape that existed at the university and the university’s refusal to address it effectively,” she said.
“The evidence is that not enough is being done to combat this scourge and that ingrained aspects of the university’s culture promote and exacerbate an environment in which no reasonable woman can feel completely safe.”
She said in court papers that at the time the university would refer to female first-year students as “seals” ripe for “clubbing” when explaining the aggressive sexual behaviour of male students.
“When rape and sexual violence were reported, the response was far from ideal,” Dyantyi said. “I was angry at the university’s careless attitude to rape and sexual violence and its inability to see how it was complicit in promoting an environment in which sexual violence thrives.”
The “RU Reference List protests” were triggered after a list of names of men who were “notorious for aggressively pursuing sexual contact with women on campus” was published on a popular social media page for students, called Rhodes Queer Confessions.
Dyantyi denied that she posted the list. After the list was posted, a group of women confronted three men on the list at their dormitory rooms and forced them to walk with the group. Two managed to escape but one was held overnight by protesters in the drama department’s parking lot.
The protests continued for four days and prompted the university to obtain an interim interdict to have it shut down. Dyantyi was cited by name as a party to this interdict and named as a leader of the protest in affidavits. Large parts of the interdict were later set aside by the High Court.
Her application for leave to appeal the parts of the interdict that stood was refused by the Constitutional Court.
A year after the protests in April 2018, Dyantyi was charged under the university’s disciplinary code with kidnapping, assault, defamation and insubordination. She was found guilty and expelled from the university.
During the disciplinary process, one of the men who claimed to have been kidnapped during the protests said he didn’t pay much attention to the RU Reference list when he first heard about it as he always appeared on lists female students made of their “crushes”.
He said he was confronted by an angry group of women in his dormitory that night who shouted at him that he was a rapist and that he was “going to pay tonight”. He said Dyantyi called him “an animal, a vile beast and a rapist”. He claimed 2,000 students took part in the protests.
The presiding officer at her disciplinary hearing, advocate Michael Hutchinson, summarised the rest of his evidence as follows:
“Although he was in a state of shock he realised that if he said anything it could provoke the mob further. He was at their mercy and did not want to express any conflicting views… Taking flight was not an option because he would have succumbed to their numbers. He was being pushed, slapped and kicked.”
Hutchinson said the witness perceived Dyantyi to be the leader as she was the “most vocal” and others looked to her for direction.
He said the student “was fearful about what would happen after the male students were rounded up”.
“There were whispers from the crowd about necklacing them,” Hutchinson said in his summary of evidence.
He said the last remaining student was taken away by the police who pretended to arrest him to get him away from the crowd. The student had a case of sexual assault opened against him but the National Prosecuting Authority had declined to prosecute.
“Nobody ever apologised to him,” Hutchinson remarked. He said the student that was held overnight did not open criminal cases against the women who took him as “he did not believe it would assist with healing”.
Hutchinson found that Dyantyi had embarked on an “unwarranted defamatory campaign” against the student and refused to acknowledge wrongdoing. He also found her guilty of kidnapping, assault, defamation and insubordination and ordered that she be expelled from the university.
Dyantyi’s legal team, represented by advocate Anna-Marie de Vos SC and Ofentse Mothlasedi instructed by the director of litigation for the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, Nomzamo Zondo, argued that Dyantyi’s disciplinary hearing should be set aside.
They argued that when her legal team – during the disciplinary hearing – asked for a postponement as they had other court cases to attend to, Hutchinson refused their request. The disciplinary hearing then proceeded and concluded in her absence.
They further argued that the evidence against her was “grossly insufficient” to justify a guilty verdict and no witnesses with first-hand knowledge of what happened were called to give evidence, adding that she was convicted on the evidence of the “uncorroborated evidence of a single witness”.
They added that Hutchinson wrongly refused to recuse himself after he was overheard saying, “I am the university.”
They added that while Dyantyi was entitled to an internal review of the disciplinary hearing, this was refused by the university, who claimed she filed it too late.
The university’s legal team, led by advocate Isak Smuts SC, argued that the application to have Dyantyi’s disciplinary hearing set aside should be dismissed.
Susan Smailes, the legal adviser to the university’s vice-chancellor, said in papers before court that the university had a duty to regulate student behaviour.
She described the rape culture protests as “vigilantism”, saying they “consisted of very serious acts of criminal activity including kidnapping, assault, humiliation, threatening and taunting of several male students”.
Smailes accused Dyantyi of “unreasonably and self-servingly” downplaying her part in the criminal conduct. She added that Dyantyi “consistently sought to mislead the court” by creating the idea that the protest was nothing but a picket outside a residence during which three men were confronted.
“The truth was that they forced their way into residences and found three men, including one that did not appear on the list just because someone shouted his name,” Smailes said.
She said during his ruling granting the university an interdict to stop the protests, a judge described Dyantyi as a person who “posed a significant threat to the safety and well-being of other members of the university community”.
“She demonstrated a propensity to unbridled violence, to disregard and treat with disdain the rules of the university, the country and the fundamental rights of students,” Smailes said.
She said the victims of the protest suffered extreme psychological and emotional scars.
“The university has no issue with any of its students protesting, but cannot and does not condone assault, kidnapping, torture or threats,” she said.
Smailes said they found Dyantyi’s description of the pervasive rape culture on campus at the time irrelevant but also denied that it was true.
“Gender-based violence and rape is a widespread scourge across South Africa and the world. The university has repeatedly and openly and consistently condemned gender-based violence and rape.”
She said they believed that Dyantyi had not withdrawn from the disciplinary hearing because her counsel was not available but did so because she “could not provide any substantial information” to contest the overwhelming evidence against her.
“She abandoned the hearing when the opportunity arose for her to give evidence.”
Deputy Judge President of the Eastern Cape High Court, Zamani Nhlangulela, reserved judgment. MC
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