South Africa

REFLECTIONS

Freedom Day brings little freedom from violence for many women

Freedom Day brings little freedom from violence for many women

It’s hard not to look at Freedom Day through jaundiced eyes when so many women are being beaten, raped and abused in a free and democratic South Africa. What freedom? What democracy?

It’s the day South Africans are meant to celebrate their freedom from the oppressive stranglehold of apartheid. To celebrate being able to vote for the very first time. To celebrate equal rights and justice for all. For many women, there is little to celebrate.

Four years ago, I was a student trying to navigate a new class schedule while working at Rhodes University’s student press, Activate, as the deputy online editor. I was in charge of social media.

Journalism is not an easy job at the best of times, and being a woman in this field comes with its own challenges, especially when it comes to matters close to your heart.

In my journalism classes, I was taught an interesting thing – my lecturer said it’s a very important thing. Distance yourself from the story. Keep your emotions in check.

“You have to remain objective at all times. Don’t let your subjectivity cloud your judgement when it comes to producing that story,” he said. 

I suppose my lecturer didn’t factor the #RUReferenceList protest against rape culture into his lesson, because up until then I had been a firm believer in the notions of objectivity and balance.

On the evening of 17 April 2016, I received a message from the editor of Activate about a list that appeared on a Facebook Page called Rhodes Queer Confessions. It revealed the names of male students who had allegedly physically or sexually abused women on campus.

One of the names on that list was an ex-boyfriend of a close friend of mine. Let’s call him X. I wasn’t surprised to see his name. Two weeks earlier, my friend’s new boyfriend had written on the student body’s Facebook page about how X had on a number of occasions physically assaulted my friend.

She had also told me about the abuse – long before the list came out – and I had done nothing about it. 

When the list was published, I joined the crowd that marched on the residences where some of these male students were staying. Some were dragged out and forced to confront the angry crowd, most of whom were women.

Topping the #RUReferenceList was Yolanda Dyantyi, who was later charged and found guilty by the university for kidnapping and insubordination.

During the course of the next few days – which included 27 April 2016 – the university tried to do damage control by assuring students that “Rhodes University does not condone rape culture”. Exams were a month away and they urged us to return to class. 

As a fledgling journalist, I reported on the situation as objectively as I could. Then I had a meltdown. I felt like a traitor to every woman who had been a victim of these men. 

I was flabbergasted to see that the protestors were in more trouble than the men on the list. The reason? The men were “innocent until proven guilty”. And that’s how it ended.

People in Grahamstown (Makanda) celebrated Freedom Day as if there’d never been a protest about rape culture at the university. From what I’ve heard over the years, the situation hasn’t changed all that much. Female students are still being abused.

When you go into an all-women residence, part of orientation week is to be lectured about safety precautions to ensure you don’t find yourself in “a compromising situation”. Speaking to some of my guy friends who lived in all-male residences, their orientation week included house committee members saying things like, “You can have girls over, even after curfew, as long as I don’t hear them scream.”

Then, in 2018, a Twitter forum was created which was similar to the #RUReferenceList. This also exposed male students allegedly guilty of abusing women. Some of the names on that particular thread were close friends of mine. I was angry, but a small part of me wasn’t surprised.

I again tried to report on this as objectively as I could, as I was now the new editor at Rhodes Music Radio. It was almost impossible and I barely managed to scrape the report altogether.  

After graduating from Rhodes, I concluded that it would be very difficult for me to do stories on gender-based violence. I simply didn’t know how to separate my emotions from the stories. I didn’t know how to report objectively on these cases. Even now, writing this, I feel torn between what I want to say and what I’m allowed to say.

I always think back to what a friend of mine once said when I was at university, “How many women do you know that have not been assaulted, whether it be physically, emotionally or sexually? We’re all survivors, one way or another.”

Reporting on Freedom Day activities feels a bit frivolous when there have been over 2,000 calls and complaints to the government’s gender-based violence command centre in just a few weeks of lockdown.

As a young woman, I gain nothing from celebrating a holiday that does little more than  remind me of how so many women are still suffering at the hands of violent men. DM

This article is part of a series of reflections from Young Maverick writers about what Freedom Day means to them.

 

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