Defend Truth


SA’s higher education sector must foster more dialogues on gender dynamics, GBV and safe spaces


Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

Changing the mindset of men and boys within the post-school education and training sector concerning GBV is destined to be a complex mission, exacerbated by the patriarchal attitudes and practices that persist within South African higher education.

As Women’s Month draws to a close in South Africa, the hosting of the  Inaugural Pset (Post-School Education and Training) Transforming Mentalities Summit by Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande on Tuesday, 29 August 2023, signifies earnest multifaceted efforts towards combating gender-based violence (GBV).

“The summit aims to engage men and boys in addressing the root causes of violence against women,” wrote the minister. The summit draws its inspiration from the Unesco Transforming MENtalities Initiative, which was inaugurated in 2015 within the Latin American and Caribbean region.

The initiative embodies a commitment to reshaping societal attitudes and perceptions, particularly those held by men, towards pressing issues of GBV and gender equality. Unesco’s transformative approach recognises the essential role of education, awareness, and multi-sectoral partnerships in instigating meaningful change.  

By fostering dialogues, challenging stereotypes, and promoting positive models of masculinity, an initiative like the Transforming MENtalities Summit signifies a commendable stride towards building a safer and more equitable environment for all in the Post-School Education and Training (Pset) Sector. The timing of this summit holds substantial meaning, coinciding with the culmination of South Africa’s Women’s Month.

In as much as commendations are in order for Minister Nzimande’s visionary step in tackling the imperative national challenge of reshaping male attitudes towards GBV, the sobering reality is that South African women and girls in particular are perpetually at risk of GBV.

Tackling nuanced attitudes

Central to public discourses such as the summit should be serious discussions about deep-seated issues of patriarchy, gender inequality, and gender diversity, which have been unequivocally identified as underlying factors fuelling violence against genders other than males.

By the way, those in the Pset sector are not immune from GBV. A 2022 study by Given Mutinda titled “Gender-Based Violence Among Female Students and Implications for Health Intervention Programmes in Public Universities in Eastern Cape, South Africa” reveals, for example, that South African institutions of higher education and training are experiencing an increase in the prevalence of gender-based violence committed against female students, who are most often victims.

On sexual gender-based violence, for instance, the “findings demonstrate that 378 (46.7%) of the students (in the study) had experienced sexual violence. Out of students who experienced sexual violence, 102 (36.8%) reported being victims of attempted rape while 80 (28.9%) recounted having experienced full rape, whereas 96 (34.6%) reported having experienced both attempted and full rape.

“The study found that 46 (57.6%) of the 80 sexual gender-based violence survivors of full rape were violated once while 34 (42.6%) were violated more than twice. The findings indicate that 136 (45.4%) of the committers of sexual gender-based violence were university friends followed by unfamiliar people 60 (21.7%), boyfriends 50 (19%), and lecturers 42 (15.2%).”

Addressing deeply ingrained patriarchal attitudes and practices within South African higher education will prove to be a formidable challenge in the quest to reshape male mindsets concerning GBV within the Pset sector. 

Instilling the changes

A book titled Gender Based Violence in University Communities — Policy, Prevention and Educational Initiatives edited by Sundari Anitha and Ruth Lewis is instructive in this discussion. According to the authors, an unfortunate “elision of gender is taking place in the context of the appeal of post-feminist equalisation discourses that deem gender equality as a fait accompli and any acts of violence as residual remnants from a previous era — idiosyncratic and individual rather than rooted in structural inequalities”.

As we robustly discuss these multi-fora initiatives, let us as men remember that among the pressing issues is the need for an unwavering commitment to dismantling age-old norms that perpetuate gender inequality, and for a concerted effort to replace them with a more inclusive and respectful framework.

The higher education landscape is still grappling with undesirable attitudes and practices that often manifest in subtle ways, from unequal power dynamics to the normalisation of discriminatory behaviours. Recognising the enormity of this challenge, it is imperative to approach the endeavour with a multifaceted strategy to be integrated into the fabric of the Pset sector.  

While the summit is a welcome initiative, it is vital to acknowledge that change will not happen overnight. Transforming attitudes that have been cultivated over generations requires perseverance and a sustained commitment to progress.

Changing the mindset of men and boys within the Pset sector concerning GBV is destined to be a complex mission, exacerbated by the patriarchal attitudes and practices that persist within South African higher education.

Necessary oversight lacking

GBV prevention at the Pset sector is mandated by national legislation and policies. In my view, however, the South African Pset sector is not doing enough to encourage open dialogues about gender dynamics, GBV and the importance of fostering safe spaces for all. This also applies to fostering research focussing on the prevalence of GBV or establishing curriculum or programme content that mainstreams combatting GBV.

One approach to ensuring that this takes place is for a much higher authority, such as the minister, to mandate such inclusion. For example, students across all programmes in all disciplines can be required to take a capstone module on human dignity protection and prevention of GBV. 

Alternatively, the minister may follow models such as Scotland’s Equally Safe National Delivery Plan. The plan provides a framework and reference point for preventing GBV in Scottish higher education institutions and forms the bedrock for implementing that country’s strategic approach to GBV prevention in higher education.  

Notably, the plan set four priorities: 

  1. “Society embraces equality and mutual respect, and rejects all forms of violence against women and girls;
  2. Women and girls thrive as equal citizens: socially, culturally, economically and politically;
  3. Interventions are early and effective, preventing violence and maximising the safety and well-being of women and girls; and
  4. Men desist from all forms of violence against women and girls and perpetrators of such violence receive a robust and effective response.”

Let us begin to see on the ground tangible evidence that GBV is being tackled with the contempt it deserves, using different instruments and approaches.

At the University of Limpopo, for example, there is a play, Ghost Twerkers, that presents a powerful message about the prevalence of GBV and the role masculinity and patriarchy plays in this scourge. The actors in Ghost Twerkers — and students in the Faculty of Humanities — provoke a hard and honest mindset change. It is about the reality that society — and men in particular — sometimes do not want to appreciate and acknowledge.

Interestingly, recently Justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga of the Constitutional Court raised the alarm against  “patriarchal tendencies” that taint even the judiciary’s approach to GBV: “We, judicial officers, are not free from blame. We do not treat cases of gender-based violence the way we should. Part of the problem is that, being part of the same society that breeds GBV, we are not immune from the ills of patriarchy, sexism and [misogyny] that are among the factors that are at the centre of GBV.”

The play Ghost Twerkers also paints the sad reality of GBV trials becoming a theatre of victim-blaming and character assassination — the victims having to face the law and justice that seems to suggest that their occupation as exotic dancers and sex workers stripped them of the right to say no, that their consent was a transaction rather than a choice.

Not long ago we had a South African court effectively suggesting the mistaken belief that consent constitutes a defence in rape cases. In Ghost Twerkers, when the verdict was finally delivered, it was a gut-wrenching blow. It portrayed the sad reality of perpetrators of GBV continuing to receive sentences that are mere slaps on the wrists. Or acquitted in what is clearly a skewed administration of justice. 

The Pset sector as a bastion of education must begin to seriously change mindsets about GBV. Hopefully, this summit will become a catalyst for reform, inspiring society to challenge preconceived notions and work towards a fairer, more equitable society.

The current Pset sector GBV knowledge production ecosystem needs to change significantly too. The sector needs to be reminded of its constitutional duty to help combat societal malaise such as GBV, and other obligations through several international instruments such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs).

For example, SDG 5 places an obligation to promote gender equality and empower all women and girls. Particularly, Target 5.1 calls us to end all forms of discrimination against women and children everywhere, including in the corridors of our universities and colleges, while Target 5.2 calls for the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls in the public and private sphere.

With a focus on elevating discussions involving male voices within the Pset realm, and addressing the pervasive pandemic of GBV, it is hoped that the summit catalyses a shift in societal attitudes and perceptions, ultimately contributing to safer and more inclusive educational and professional environments.

Otherwise, it will just be another talk show and lip service to victims of GBV. DM


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