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29 March 2017 11:04 (South Africa)
Opinionista Vicky Heideman

From the silence: A response to Deborah Seddon

  • Vicky Heideman
    Vicky-Heideman.jpg
    Vicky Heideman

    Vicky Heideman holds degrees from Rhodes and Cambridge universities. She is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law and an admitted attorney. She was also a warden of a Rhodes University residence from 2011-2015, a hall warden in 2015, and she is currently a fellow of Desmond Tutu Hall.

There is currently a toxic “you are either with us or against us” type narrative expressed by the #RUReferenceList movement, which has silenced those who have any form of concerns to raise against it. I do hope that this response in itself will break that silence and pave the way for some more meaningful engagement by all concerned persons.

I am a staff member of the university currently known as Rhodes, which is why I choose to call it that. When the name does change to something more historically appropriate I will call it by its new name. But for the moment, let us call it Rhodes University so that there is no confusion.

I do not form part of the group who call themselves “concerned staff” because I do not identify with all of their views, but that does not make me any less concerned (as many of us are) by some of the sentiments held by Dr Deborah Seddon (“We Will Not Be Silenced”, Daily Maverick, 1 June 2016) and others on Rhodes campus, and the problematic way in which the university management has humoured these sentiments and the manner of their expression.

As such I speak for those of us on Rhodes campus who have been silenced of late by the imminent threat of being labelled a “rape apologist” or of having threats hurled in our direction such as, “I hope you are raped so that you know what it feels like” for wishing to uphold the rule of law, or being threatened to be burned alive in front of our children for trying to protect a student named on the reference list from a mob’s idea of justice.

There is currently a toxic “you are either with us or against us” type narrative expressed by the #RUReferenceList movement, which has silenced those who have any form of concerns to raise against it. I do hope that this response in itself will break that silence and pave the way for some more meaningful engagement by all concerned persons.

Dr Seddon will have us believe that the protesters in the recent #RUReferenceList protests were peaceful, and that none of the men who were forcibly evicted from their residences during the protest were physically harmed.

Instead, these men were simply held captive and frogmarched around campus by a crowd of angry people, and who knows what verbal insults they were subjected to in the process. Of them, Dr Seddon says, “[t]hey 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.”

These sentiments are problematic on a number of levels. The first level is that of violence. Many victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence are not physically harmed either, and yet we nonetheless call it violence – because it is. Dr Seddon clearly recognises this in her sympathies toward survivors of rape. And yet the trespassing, kidnapping, crimen iniuria and defamation suffered by those men whose names appeared on an anonymously posted list seem unimportant in the face of the fact that they were not “physically harmed”.

Instead, many of these young men’s futures have been destroyed. Many of them student leaders, they have been summarily dismissed from their positions, some have had future contracts of employment cancelled, and everywhere they go they are subjected to whisperings and condemnation from people who have never met them.

Another problematic level is Dr Seddon’s implication that this treatment of those on the list is justified given what they have done. But what have they done? As Dr Seddon has said: no descriptions were offered, no allegations were made, “but the crowd began to grasp what connected the names.”

And as with all good rumours, what they had done escalated until each of the 11 was as good as a convicted rapist in the eyes of the crowd. But most, if not all of the 11, had never had any kind of formal complaint laid against them, let alone a criminal conviction.

Dr Seddon accuses management of being unsupportive “of the active, vocal demand for social justice for survivors that has arisen this year”.

To this I offer the opposite, albeit far less popular view of management’s response to the situation. Management was given 24 hours to respond to demands from the protesters. They responded, and they called for the establishment of a task team – a very positive move. But what they refused to do was to violate the Constitution by summarily suspending the students from the university without even a charge being laid against them, let alone a fair hearing. But even in this the university management met the protesters halfway. In probably the most problematic statement issued by the university in the week of 17 April, the university stated as follows on 20 April:

All students who have been sexually assaulted or raped by people whose names appear on the #RUReferenceList are requested to report the matter and provide a statement to Ms Naledi Mashishi … or Ms Kim Barker … so that prosecution can be expedited. Once statements have been received pre-suspension hearings will be held, with a view to suspending the accused pending finalisation of the case.”

Implied in this statement is the preconceived guilt of the men whose names appear on the list, and that due process for suspension of these men is an inconvenient formality which the university is unfortunately bound to comply with. It also implicitly legitimises the “reference list” as a means to pursue justice.

It is interesting to note that following this invitation, the university community has been informed of only one formal complaint being laid against one of the men on the list. In some of the underground rumour, it has been said that for more than one of the men listed, the incident in question involved something that at worst could be construed as sexual harassment, and when asked to stop such conduct the man in question did so, and at least one of the men on the list has no idea why his name appears there at all.

But the general response to these possibilities is a dangerous utilitarian “the end justifies the means” type narrative that undermines more of the rights enshrined in our Constitution than it seeks to uphold. In the process of these engagements, our Vice-Chancellor has been subjected to being called a rapist and being told by a protester that she hopes that his minor daughters are raped so that he can know what it feels like, yet he has still chosen to continue to engage the demands of the protests. And in the face of this our management has been accused of being unsupportive.

It seems to me that the demands of the protesters in this most recent protest have been that the university management solve what is ultimately an ingrained social problem, as though they may have the power to do so. On a more realistic level, the demand seems to be that the university do more to assist survivors of rape and other forms of sexual violence, and to punish the alleged perpetrators. Unfortunately this demand appears to have backfired. The university’s student disciplinary code currently makes special provision for hearings to be held in cases of sexual violence where the burden of proof is on a balance of probabilities (as opposed to beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal trial).

Where the accused is found guilty he is excluded from the university.

In my five years as a warden of a university residence, I have assisted several students who have been subjected to sexual violence. In these cases I have given the students the options of reporting the matter to the police and laying a criminal charge or reporting the matter internally and going the route of university discipline.

In all cases the complainant has indicated that the university’s disciplinary route is likely to be less traumatic and is likely to bring about some form of justice more quickly than the criminal route. The less onerous burden of proof in the student disciplinary code also contributes to a more likely conviction of the accused.

But as a result of these protests it has been recognised that the university is in fact ill-equipped to run cases of sexual violence in any event, and so the likelihood is that this option for survivors will be removed in the near future. Rather, the only option will be for complainants to lay criminal charges with the police, and all that the university will be able to offer is its support services for students who wish to do so.

The interim interdict that the concerned staff members refer to with such distaste was sought by the university to protect students and staff. In it students and staff are interdicted from various forms of unlawful conduct, including kidnapping as well as barricading campus and disrupting lectures.

While I cannot say that I approve of the manner in which the interdict was sought and implemented (the letter to Ms Knowles based on the strength of an Oppidan Press tweet was absurd in my view), it should be noted that at least one women’s hall of residence has formally requested that the interdict remain in place because it makes them feel safer.

Rhodes is a fairly unique kind of campus in that it is open to the public and is largely residential. The #FeesMustFall protests were largely a constructive and unifying experience on Rhodes campus, but despite this those in residence were at times made to feel unsafe and quite frightened. This was particularly so when protesters systematically entered residences and in some cases pulled students out of their rooms to join the protest, at times damaging university property in the process such as doors and security features.

The residence that I was a warden of was one of the few not to be entered by protesters, and this was so because the subwardens and I served as a human barricade at the door to protect the students in the residence – a task that our student leaders should never have had to perform. As a hall warden I was called by a student to do a make-shift fix of her window. Campus was barricaded and so emergency maintenance could not be done, and the student in question was too scared to sleep in her room after her window had been broken the night before by protesters.

It is not ideal that a university should specifically list the things that its students are prohibited from doing in a court-sanctioned document. It is also not ideal that the conduct of people involved in a protest movement that ultimately has a worthy cause at its core should be restrained in the way that it has. But what is far less ideal is that one form of alleged violence begets new violence, and that the price of awareness of these very real issues facing our students is the silence of those who could contribute towards rigorous academic debate as to a constitutionally sound way forward.

In the spirit of constructive engagement, I do hope that on the return day for the interim interdict Dr Seddon and the concerned staff members are able to construct a good argument as to why the interim interdict should not be made permanent. Because at this stage, I cannot think of one. DM

Vicky Heideman holds degrees from Rhodes and Cambridge universities. She is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law and an admitted attorney. She was also a warden of a Rhodes University residence from 2011-2015, a hall warden in 2015, and she is currently a fellow of Desmond Tutu Hall.

  • Vicky Heideman
    Vicky-Heideman.jpg
    Vicky Heideman

    Vicky Heideman holds degrees from Rhodes and Cambridge universities. She is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law and an admitted attorney. She was also a warden of a Rhodes University residence from 2011-2015, a hall warden in 2015, and she is currently a fellow of Desmond Tutu Hall.

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