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17 October 2017 08:12 (South Africa)
Opinionista Deborah Seddon

‘We will not be Silenced’: Rape Culture, #RUReferencelist, and the University Currently Known as Rhodes

  • Deborah Seddon
    Deborah-Seddon-pic-2.jpg
    Deborah Seddon

    Dr Deborah Seddon holds degrees from UCKAR and Cambridge University. She is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department, a British Academy Newton Advanced Fellow, and a member of GenAct; the poetry collective, the Cycle of Knowledge; and the UCKAR Concerned Staff.

It began with a list. Eleven men’s names and the words “et al” (meaning “and others”). Nothing more. No descriptions were offered. No allegations were made. In a wry gesture towards the academic requirements against plagiarism in any student’s written work (an offence which can mean exclusion from the university) the post was entitled “Reference List”.

Within hours, this anonymous Facebook post on the RU Queer Confessions and Crushes page had gone viral. On the night of Sunday 17 April, the “Reference List” prompted UCKAR (University Currently Known as Rhodes) students into collective action. They began to grasp what connected the names. A crowd gathered at the student union, and entered one men’s residence after the other, intent on rounding up the listed students still at UCKAR. The police were called to the campus to intervene – the first of many times. By the time I saw the list, via a Twitter screen grab the next morning, #RUReferencelist was trending at number three in South Africa. The students’ decisions: to post the “Reference List” anonymously on social media; to seek out those listed individually, and to demand the university take immediate action to suspend and investigate them, have drawn condemnation from the university management, and from many in the press and on social media, raising questions about balancing the rights of the accused versus the rights of the abused in a constitutional democracy.

Anyone outside this institution might be forgiven for thinking that the RUReferencelist protest of 2016 is the first time that anyone has ever tried to tackle the issue of rape culture at UCKAR. These weeks of protest have been traumatic and exhausting. But for those of us who have been working for years within the university system, trying to improve practices and policies, to prevent sexual assault, and give adequate support to survivors, they have created a space for possibility, forged new forms of intersectional solidarity among staff members and student activists, and given us some tangible hope.

There is one thing we are all clear about: after this, nothing can ever be quite the same. There are, at the time of writing, 85 concerned staff members who have tried repeatedly to persuade the university management, in person and in three open letters, that serious engagement with the protesters’ demands is required. We have also suggested several ways of doing this. Many of us share the view expressed to us in person by Rakgadi Mohlahlane, of the Stop Gender Based Violence National Strategic Plan, during her organisation’s visit to support the RUReferencelist students, that these young people “have taken us further down the road to ending rape culture than anything attempted in the last 20 years”. That these student activists, in refusing to be silenced, and in publicly exposing institutional attitudes and practices which have protected perpetrators, deserve our gratitude and respect.

I am a member and former chair of the Gender Action Forum (GenAct), a university committee set up in 2004 to provide a gender perspective on the formulation, revision, and implementation of institutional policies, including drawing up protocols and mechanisms dealing with discrimination, sexual harassment, and assault. We have representatives on university committees and allies in related student societies. With these student societies, the Division of Student Affairs, and the Office of Equity and Institutional Culture, GenAct members also plan and organise the annual Silent Protest on campus: now the largest protest against rape and sexual violence in South Africa. It has grown and changed from 80 participants in its first year to 1,700 in 2015. I have taken part in the Silent Protest almost every year since 2006. I am also one of the 38 concerned staff members who formally opposed the interim interdict taken out by the university management against staff and students. Our legal opposition, in the High Court on Tuesday 17 May, has prevented the interim interdict from being made permanent, until the case is heard in September.

I am not a survivor but I have stood, year after year during the Silent Protest, in solidarity with my friends, colleagues, and students who are survivors: my mouth taped shut with black gaffer tape for the entire day, abstaining from food, drink, and speech, so that I become a disquieting representation of the silence forced upon survivors by societal norms.

Survivors are not taped. Early in the morning, they tape their supporters’ mouths. We all wear purple T-shirts to identify ourselves, as either survivors or supporters, and explain our reasons for protesting. After a march through campus and town, we try to remain visible, giving or attending our classes as usual. At sunset we join up to march towards the Grahamstown Cathedral, where, after the removal of the tape and a brown bag supper, survivors who wish to do so tell us their stories.

I have valued the imagery, the aims, and the role of the Silent Protest in lifting the burden of healing off the individual alone and placing it onto the community; in raising awareness and solidarity. In 2013, I was one of the people active in taking steps to secure an organisational home for the Silent Protest, at a time when no one was sure that institutional support would continue. In 2014, due to our advocacy, it became a Vice-Chancellor’s special project. I felt this was an important achievement in ensuring UCKAR's sustained commitment to challenging rape culture on campus and in society.

Today, I have to reckon with a sobering fact. It suited my university management to support the Silent Protest; to support protests against rape culture when they remained precisely that: silent. When protests comprised of survivors and their supporters stoically and silently bearing the grief and pain. When the experiences of survivors were not voiced directly in meetings with management, nor on the street by angry half-dressed women, but instead contained safely inside the Grahamstown Cathedral, where, in the hushed candlelit space, survivors spoke to the converted. When those most in need of listening could remain in a state of denial. When those who remained indifferent to the rape crisis in our country never bothered to expose themselves to the survivors’ stories, while those of us who participated year after year could barely stand the telling and the hearing.

The Silent Protest has raised UCKAR’s profile at home and abroad in terms of the university’s perceived openness to addressing gender-based violence. But the university management has now shown itself far less supportive of the active, vocal demand for social justice for survivors that has arisen this year. The recent protests began a little before the release of the “Reference List”. They were quiet and peaceful, led by a national student organisation, Chapter 2.12 (a name drawn from the chapter in the Constitution which guarantees everyone “the right to bodily and psychological integrity”). They put up posters on campus, on 11 April, which quoted responses by management, university prosecutors, and staff to survivors reporting rape. These posters were taken down by the Campus Protection Unit. Chapter 2.12 put them up again, started a photo campaign, and added a huge paper banner outside the library: "WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED.” Shortly after this, the “Reference List” post appeared.

In various statements, the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, has repeated his view that “Rhodes University condemns rape and sexual violence” and that “one rape is one too many”. He has also reiterated that management’s only disagreement with the protesters concerns their key demand: that UCKAR find a new way to deal with the perpetrators in our midst. This demand has been met with physical, psychological, and legal violence against both students and staff. In the face of everything that is known about the failure of the legal system to provide social justice for survivors, UCKAR management have argued that the only way to exclude sexual perpetrators is after a conviction in the courts.

The same university management who kept the SAPS at bay during the #FeesMustFall protests last year has now repeatedly called the police onto our campus – unleashing the state machinery of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and the power of arrest. Management has taken out an interim interdict and sent a lawyer’s letter to my colleague Corinne Knowles, in terms of the interdict. It demanded that she “cease and desist” from encouraging illegal activities when a remark she made, using the word “disrupt” in a discussion between students and staff on a way forward, was attributed to her in a tweet.

Photo: Students stand in solidarity with staff member Corinne Knowles. (Photo by Kate Janse van Rensburg.)

Management has tried to prevent members of the Stop Gender Based Violence National Strategic Plan, who had arrived in support of the RUReferencelist team, in taking an active part in dialogue. They have complained that students are not showing them sufficient respect. They walked out of what might have been a break-through negotiation when a student survivor suggested that the university’s response to her rape has felt akin to rape itself.

Management has argued that the interdict was a last resort: invoked to prevent the threat of violence on campus, if students take the law into their own hands. But none of the men on the list rounded up on the night of Sunday 17 April was physically harmed in any way, some escaped quite easily from the angry crowd, ran away, or simply walked off. They were not beaten up, nor injured. And, unlike the protesting survivors, they enjoy the continued right to walk through campus without question, police investigation, or arrest.

In order to maintain the interdict, the university management has tried to discredit the RUReferencelist protesters as nothing more than a bunch of disrespectful hooligans – intent on damaging university property and disrupting the academic project. If they continue with this narrative, it will be because they have somehow failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. The young women activists leading these protests are some our brightest and most capable students. Tertiary institutions exist to create critical thinkers like these: people who “disrupt” the norm. There are different forms of violence. Some of the worst forms of violence on display, to my mind, have been in the damaging decisions taken by the university management themselves.

Now, as a direct result of the protests, the university has urgently set up a “Sexual Violence Task Team”. The terms of reference for the task team were decided in an open, participatory fashion. It is made up of over 60 staff and students, working together in seven specific working groups, with student leadership and input at all levels. It exists outside of the usual university committee structures and is the best forum that this university has ever had for tackling rape culture long term. It took the defiant, unceasing actions of student protesters to get us to this point. But the process is fragile, after all that has been done to destroy trust, student faith in this structure will wither, fast, if it is viewed as a way, once again, to delay, ignore, and silence the key demand of the protesters: that something is done about the continued presence of perpetrators on campus. Some male students have now taken to signing petitions to get students on the lists removed from their residences.

On one hand, we have the clear demand from the protesters: that the university community faces up to the national epidemic of gender based violence and takes an active role in altering, radically, the culture of entitlement and impunity that is the reality on campus. That they take allegations of sexual assault seriously and suspend alleged perpetrators while a process of investigation occurs. On the other hand, we have the demand that a survivor just accepts the status quo: that there is very little to be done, as convictions are so difficult to secure, and that, without them, there can be no exclusions. It’s a small campus, and survivors will just have to deal with encountering their assailants – in the dining hall, in the classroom, out at night with friends, for all the years of their time at UCKAR. Many simply leave.

How many rapes is “one too many”? Twelve years of work on policy and procedures, 10 years of silent protesting, and the sexual violence just goes on and on and on. Since the RUReferencelist protests began, rape has occurred on campus, presumably because perpetrators feel they still have virtual immunity. If we will not fight this status quo, then we must acknowledge our own culpability: that we are also on the “Reference List” – that we are the people listed as “et al.” DM

Dr Deborah Seddon holds degrees from UCKAR and Cambridge University. She is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department, a British Academy Newton Advanced Fellow, and a member of GenAct; the poetry collective, the Cycle of Knowledge; and the UCKAR Concerned Staff.

  • Deborah Seddon
    Deborah-Seddon-pic-2.jpg
    Deborah Seddon

    Dr Deborah Seddon holds degrees from UCKAR and Cambridge University. She is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department, a British Academy Newton Advanced Fellow, and a member of GenAct; the poetry collective, the Cycle of Knowledge; and the UCKAR Concerned Staff.

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