It is amazing how quickly the rhetoric moved to “lynch mob” and “kangaroo court” in the four days that female (and some male) students at Rhodes University embarked on a guerilla campaign, circulating a public list exposing 11 alleged serial rapists and abusers on campus.
The protests began after the list of current and past students was released on the RU Queer Confessions, Questions and Crushes Facebook page with the hashtag #RUReferenceList. The list 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.
Students then marched to various residences in an attempt, en masse, to locate some of the students whose names appeared on the list. One student was held hostage by the group while Vice-Chancellor Sizwe Mabizela and Director of Student Affairs, Colleen Vassiliou, attempted to negotiate his release. By 08:00 the following morning police were called in to rescue the man.
“But what if these are false claims?” asked many on Twitter (Worldwide statistics show that less than two percent of charges of rape are false). Why didn’t the victims report these men? (We know how difficult this is, there is enough evidence that police often re-traumatise complainants). This is a violation of the constitutional rights of the alleged rapists and abusers (and what about the rights of those women who are raped?)
These are, of course, all valid questions and concerns in democratic South Africa. That the students held one of the alleged rapists hostage is indeed unlawful and criminal. But what should they have done?
In a “normal” society the students should have reported the alleged rapist to the police or campus authorities. Would they have responded? Would they have a van available? Would they have answered the phone? Would they have arrested him? Would they have charged him? Would he have been granted bail? Would they have asked the victim if she had been drinking? Whether she was wearing the “wrong” clothes?
Would the rapist have been back in residence and class the following day? And let’s for argument’s sake surmise that he is guilty. Would the normal sequence of events have acted as a deterrent considering the dismal track record when it comes to convictions for rape in this country? Would the case go to trial? Would he be convicted?
But this is no “normal society”. Here generations of women have been and still are terrorised by a pervasive hypermasculine culture of entitlement. Public spaces are precarious realms for women. There are the cat calls (when you are young), the relentless unwanted attention as you walk in a street or use public transport. We are told not to walk alone during the day or at night, to be careful of how we dress, to avoid dangerous areas (which is basically everywhere). Our lives are small and hermetic. We fear our fellow man.
And the #FeesMustFall movement has exposed the lack of intersectionality among many of the self-styled male leaders of the movement including Chumani Maxwele who was photographed attacking a feminist FMF member at Wits earlier this month.
This is a generation of young feminists who have developed a new and uncompromising language and methods of protest. And it is a language and protest that has upset the status quo. We do not, any more, go quietly.
Previous generations, to which I belong, often found ourselves silenced and marginalised by male leaders who argued that national liberation trumped women’s liberation and that we would deal with this later. We never did.
On Tuesday, the third day of protest at the Rhodes University campus where police arrested five students, young women resorted to an ancient form of resistance – they removed their clothes – one of the most powerful manifestations of anger.
In so doing they honoured the women of the 1929 Women’s War in Eastern Nigeria who literally put their bodies on the line resisting colonial authority and oppression and a racialised Western notion of black bodies. The Naked Protest has subsequently been used in Uganda, Liberia and South Africa.
The female body, the naked female body, so often the scene of the crime in this country, was made visible.
Responding to the protests, Rhodes Vice-chancellor, Sizwe Mabizela, said that while the university sought to provide “a consistent, caring, and timely response when sexual assaults occur within the university community”, it acknowledged that the campus was a “microcosm of society in which sexual violence and rape are pervasive”.
Witnessing the protests brought a sense of hope, anguish and strange exhilaration. So many years later and sexual violence remains the single most lethal threat to women’s lives including at an institution of so-called “higher learning”.
And as I watched from afar I imagined my daughters as students at a university and how I would fear for them and their safety. Just a few months ago a serial rapist terrorised women at UCT.
I wondered then also, if I had had a son, and he had been “falsely accused”, how I would react. As a feminist I would do what we ask women who have been raped or beaten to do. I would suggest to him that he resort to the courts where he should expect a fair trial and for those who have falsely accused him to be sanctioned.
Because in the greater scheme of things, in having to weigh up the lesser of two evils, and considering the pain and suffering of the women of this country, I would rather that my son face a false charge in a court and be exonerated than learn that my daughter had been raped, abused or murdered and the perpetrator never arrested or punished because the system is clearly dysfunctional.
We should not be surprised or afraid of the militancy of young women, instead we should work collectively to dismantle toxic and lethal notions of male-hood and male entitlement that are taken as “normal” and that have exacted and destroyed so much in this country. DM
Owls make virtually zero noise while flying.