Defend Truth


D-Day for ‘angry black girl’ Yolanda Dyantyi as Rhodes expulsion goes to EC High Court


Maanda Makwarela is a former senior researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI).

Yolanda Dyantyi was expelled for life from Rhodes University for her role in a protest against GBV on campus, and her transcripts were marked ‘Unsatisfactory Conduct: Student found guilty of assault, kidnapping, insubordination and defamation’. She would have been the first person in her family to earn a university degree. On 7 September, the Eastern Cape High Court will hear her appeal against the university.

“Sixteen days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” begins each year on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ends on 10 December, International Human Rights Day. During this time, government officials, organisations and individuals affirm their commitment to ending violence against women. Individuals and communities are encouraged to be activists and to stand up and speak out against abuse and abusers.

It was against this backdrop that Yolanda Dyantyi challenged her lifetime expulsion from Rhodes University after standing up for herself and for others when she protested against gender-based violence and rape culture at the university. Last year, on 4 December, Dyantyi headed to court to challenge her expulsion from Rhodes University as a result of her participation in a protest. Dyantyi espouses the values that 16 Days seems to promote, but has been severely reprimanded for exercising her right to protest. Her exclusion for protesting sends the message to other young women that protest is only allowed when sanctioned as an “appropriate” protest by those who hold power.

Instead of being celebrated for the bravery it takes to oppose gender-based violence, Yolanda Dyantyi has been relentlessly portrayed as an “angry black girl”. Unlike the normalised, “acceptable” image of the socially appropriate woman who knows her place and suffers in silence, the black female activist chooses to brazenly and unapologetically fight back. For that, she is deemed an “angry black girl” as a way to discredit her protest and delegitimise her concerns.

The “angry black girl” doesn’t have an opinion, she has an attitude problem. The “angry black girl” doesn’t have a right to engage with authority: she’s irrational and unreasonable. And even when confronting an institution that has objectively failed to address a pervasive rape culture, the “angry black girl’s” anger is still not justified. The “angry black girl” should be dismissed.

Dyantyi had a right to be angry.

Statistical and anecdotal evidence show that sexual violence against women has and continues to be a serious problem in South Africa. Our country has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. In 2018/2019, South African Police Service statistics showed that the number of sexual offences reported had increased to 52,420 from 50,108 in 2017/2018. However, these numbers are incomplete. Many cases are never reported, partly because of the blame victims feel for having been attacked. A 2010 study by Gender Links for Equality found that approximately 4% of women surveyed in Gauteng who had been sexually assaulted by a partner or a non-partner reported it to the police.

In 2016, Dyantyi joined a spontaneous protest after a list was posted on Facebook of the names of 11 men who had been accused of sexual assault or violence against women at Rhodes University. The silence about the pervasive rape culture at Rhodes had been broken. Protesters gathered to challenge the way in which Rhodes University responded to reports of sexual violence. The protest, nicknamed the “#RUReferenceList” protest, included hundreds of students, some using their half-nakedness in a gesture of defiance, and concerned staff members, standing in opposition to university policies they felt consistently failed women who reported being raped. The protesters’ demands were simple: they wanted the university’s rape policy to be amended to change the definition of “rape” and to remove the burden of proving a sexual assault from the survivor. In short, they were demanding a policy that would make it possible for young women who were sexually assaulted at Rhodes to see justice.

Dyantyi was one of the students singled out as a leader of the protest. The university expelled her for life and marked her transcripts with the words “Unsatisfactory Conduct: Student found guilty of assault, kidnapping, insubordination and defamation”. As a final-year student in 2017, Dyantyi would have been the first person in her family to earn a university degree had she been allowed to complete writing her examinations. The university’s practice was to permit students undergoing a disciplinary inquiry to nonetheless continue to write their exams, however, not Dyantyi.  

For the next two years, the university continued to invest time and money to fight Dyantyi in various courts. The university’s response to Dyantyi engaging in a protest was to single her out, deprive her of the opportunity to defend herself, and levy a punishment against her that will have an impact on the rest of her life. The school administrators saddled her with significant legal costs and deprived her of a university degree, directly reducing her future employment prospects and her ability to ever pay those costs.   

Rhodes University, in its response to these protests, demonstrated that it does not accept protest as a legitimate action. The university prioritised persecuting Dyantyi and others over addressing the problems the protesters highlighted. After the protests, the university advertised available resources and tightened security, but women who had been raped continued to have to attend lectures with the attackers, accused attackers continued to be allowed to graduate, and young women on campus continued to feel invisible. In 2018, a young student, Khensani Maseko, committed suicide after having been raped, reviving the conversation about the rape culture at Rhodes.

Dyantyi is a symbol of opposition to gender-based violence and rape culture 365 days a year. In refusing to accept the status quo, she embodies the bravery that young women are encouraged to possess. As a country, we have to ask if we value the sacrifices made by protesters like Dyantyi, who force us to examine uncomfortable realities and help to spur change. If we espouse the ideals foregrounded by 16 Days, we can affirm our commitment to ending violence against women by supporting Dyantyi and women like her who stand up and speak out against abuse and abusers. South Africa needs young women like Dyantyi who are willing to stand up for the rest of us and demand justice.

Dyantyi continues her struggle on 7 September where she asks the Eastern Cape High Court to grant her leave to appeal its decision refusing to set aside the outcome of her disciplinary hearing.

While Dyantyi has been punished in place of hundreds, if not thousands, of students who challenged rape culture in the #RUReference list protests, she has continued to fight alone. Challenging a university that has deemed it unnecessary that she defend herself against the serious accusations made against her, a university that fought to postpone her hearing to a date when her advocates would not be available, a disciplinary chairperson who postponed her hearing to dates that would prejudice her without providing reasons. Dyantyi has been denied the right availed to every accused person so that Rhodes University can have their scapegoat, the “angry black girl”. DM

Maanda Makwarela is a former senior researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI).


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 3

  • I’m sorry, but assault kidnapping are not the “values that 16 Days seems to promote”. If someone assaulted and kidnapped me from my place of study or work, I think I would want them to be kicked out for good.

    Or is Maande saying that the assault and kidnapping didn’t take place? Or that Dantyi’s actions were justified? If so, some further explanation is needed.

  • I realise this is an opinion piece — but it short on facts. What actually happened, what did the university allege happen, what was said in the various court proceedings etc. There is nothing to grasp at to show that Rhodes got it wrong. I’m more tempted to believe the student as that is my inclination. But I don’t know after reading this what actually happened.

  • This is a very weak and emotive piece of writing. I have NO idea what this student is supposed to have done to warrant the RU decision. The writer seems to be implying that if one is protesting against GBV then any behaviour is permissible. The writer also implies that men accused of sexual assault should be presumed guilty in sympathy with GBV protest.

  • Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted