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23 August 2017 00:37 (South Africa)
Opinionista Lisa Vetten

Outlaw speech: Contesting sexual coercion on campus

  • Lisa Vetten
    lisa-vetten.jpg
    Lisa Vetten

    Lisa Vetten has worked in the field of violence against women for over two decades as a counsellor, para-legal, trainer and researcher. She is currently an honorary research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER).

To law falls the privilege of demarcating and controlling a particular territory as its own. That which it cannot, or will not, claim is pushed beyond its borders to become that which is without law – or outlaw. This is one way to think about the release of a list of men accused of rape at Rhodes University: as outlaw speech contesting the limits of the sayable.

The #RUReferenceList appeared on 17 April after what seems to have been a week of students’ increasing dissatisfaction with the university’s response to allegations of rape. On 11 April, in support of the Unashamed campaign begun at Stellenbosch University on 10 April, posters were put up around Rhodes’ campus recording comments made by prosecutors, students and management to those seeking to lay complaints of rape.

These included students being asked if they really wanted to ruin promising young men’s careers by pursuing their complaints, or being told there was insufficient evidence to warrant pursuing a complaint. The closing of borders and erection of barriers that such comments represented can only have been reinforced when campus security removed the posters. And so came the list – the sort of rogue speech that seeks to disrupt by stating what has become unsayable.

Such outlaw actions are not unique to South Africa and nor are they new. In 1990 students at Brown University in the US began listing the names of rapists on the walls of the women’s bathrooms. And no matter how often they were washed away, the lists kept reappearing. Here too, unhappiness with the official spaces for speech led students to find their own spaces.

In South Africa, lists had already appeared in 1989 when anonymous pamphlets were distributed at the University of Cape Town accusing five men of rape. Then, as now, students resorted to naming because they did not believe the university’s reporting channels to be open to them. A commission of enquiry was set up to investigate the problem and by 1991 a panel had been established at the university.

At the University of the Western Cape it was an anthropology student’s thesis, submitted in 1989, which sparked calls for the adoption of policies and procedures addressing sexual coercion. Within the context of militant opposition to apartheid, when the struggle against racism was seen to trump that against sexism, Collette Solomon’s thesis pointed to how sexual coercion by male student activists and leaders literally could not be spoken of by women students.

These early initiatives prompted what might be considered a golden era of responses to sexual coercion at universities. Research was undertaken in the 1990s at the universities of the Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch, KwaZulu-Natal and Transkei. The University of Venda followed suit in 2004 and Rhodes in 2005. Research into the implementation of policies at UWC and Stellenbosch was also published in 2005. And then the issue largely disappeared from view – until September 2012 when Wits’ student newspaper triggered the next cycle of scattered episodic scandal which marks not only university responses to sexual coercion, but the broader South African response to such violence.

The Vuvuzela article detailed students’ experiences of sexual harassment, particularly by a professor in the politics department, and was followed by a Sunday Times article in January 2013 describing ongoing sexual harassment by a lecturer in the drama department. The two subsequent inquiries initiated into sexual harassment on campus found the university’s system to be “deficient”, being both under-resourced and having its implementation scattered ineffectually across a range of structures, rather than consolidated at one site. The outcome was the establishment in 2014 of the Gender Equity Office.

The next episode of outlaw speech came on 16 November 2015 when a UCT student tweeted the name and photograph of another student and fellow Fees Must fall activist who she accused of raping her. Also late in 2015 was a protest against sexual harassment by female students at the Michaelis Art School. A student at Michaelis who had been expelled from the school for sexual harassment had his sentence suspended on condition that he complete 65 hours of community service and not commit another offence while at UCT. In 2016 UCT’s Discrimination and Harassment Office reviewed its policies and found them to be outdated. As was the case at Wits, the office had also not been adequately resourced. There was a perception too that complainants’ matters were being pushed outside the boundaries of the law, with mediation, rather than formal disciplinary proceedings, being encouraged.

To some extent these outbreaks cannot be separated from the broader context of student discontent. They revisit and update a persistent and deep-rooted feature of South African politics that makes struggles against gender and other injustices secondary to struggles against racial injustice. They merge too with a general social amnesia that requires scandal to remind us of rape’s daily reality. And they point to the fragile nature of our various projects to institutionalise efforts to combat gender violence. Rather than being dynamic and responsive, laws and policies are allowed to collapse into stagnant, ossified territories that outlaw complaints and make other spaces necessary for speaking the unsayable.

In a time when rape survivor speech has been domesticated and reinvented as motivational speech, or the sensational stuff of true horror, lists and names are both subversive and insurgent – as they must be if the borders of the sayable and actionable are to be redrawn. DM

  • Lisa Vetten
    lisa-vetten.jpg
    Lisa Vetten

    Lisa Vetten has worked in the field of violence against women for over two decades as a counsellor, para-legal, trainer and researcher. She is currently an honorary research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER).

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