Following the brutal rape and murder of 19-year-old UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana, students at the University of Cape Town held a vigil and marched to parliament, demanding that government finally take divisive action against the scourge of gender-based violence. UCT student Gabriel Vieira recalls the events during a week which has been marked as a turning point for the country.

Cape Town, and indeed the country of South Africa, has been shaken by dramatic mass protests against the scourge of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country. The spark that set the fire was undoubtedly the tragic, but unfortunately not unique, case of Uyinene Mrwetyana. Mrwetyana, a 19-year old Film and Media Student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in her first year was reported missing the week of August 24th. The case went viral and the university, as well as the country, held its breath as the days stretched with no further news. On the first day of the new term, Monday the 2 September, the news broke that a man had confessed to the senseless murder and rape of Mrwetyana. It happened as she simply went to collect a parcel at the post office he happened to work at.

The grief that gripped not only UCT’s campus but universities throughout Cape Town and the country was immediate and severe. That very night grief-stricken students convened a powerful vigil that was the beginning of a powerful movement. With impassioned and emotional speeches and the felt presence of students from other universities, it laid the groundwork for the collaborative nature of what came to be the “#AmINext” movement. The grief turned quickly to anger.

The demonstrations that followed happened organically. As UCT student Nonceba Radebe stated, Mrwetyana’s case, as well as that of  Jesse Hess, affected us so deeply because when you leave home for university, you believe that you will be safe. We all feel betrayed.

The first mass demonstrations were to happen two days after the vigil. Clad in black mourning clothes, students from universities around Cape Town, including UCT and Stellenbosch made their way to Parliament to demand President Cyril Ramaphosa address issue of GBV with the seriousness it deserves. They were tellingly joined by large numbers of secondary school students who claimed that they had skipped school to participate. Among the grievances of the crowd were the inefficiencies surrounding the prosecution of GBV cases in South Africa, a seeming lack of interest in such cases by the police, and general unhappiness with the level of punishment doled out to those convicted (indeed, the cause of instituting the death penalty for those convicted of sex crimes was very vocally espoused).

On Wednesday crowds demanded to see Ramaphosa and heavy police presence was used as protestors became impatient outside the International Convention Center. Around midday, a group of protestors occupied an intersection in the city causing a complete traffic standstill. “We were told we must wait for Cyril! So we will wait for him on the highway!” blared activist Zuki Lamani when police ordered them to disband. When they refused, police responded with stun grenades and water cannons and some of the protestors were arrested.

That same day a powerful and well-attended memorial was held for Mrwetyana attended by UCT Chancellor Graca Machel who lamented that “this is not the country we fought for”. Ramaphosa released a statement later that day outlining measures that would be taken to improve the enforcement of laws against GBV. His promises included an increase in specialised courts, and mandatory life sentences without parole for convicted sex-offenders.

Action taken this week by university students was not only aimed at politicians and policy makers, but also instutitions of higher learning. At UCT ‘naming and shaming’ took shape as female students stormed male UCT residences to publicly call out male students who had been accused of sexual aggressions. Many male students were present and in support, “This holds males accountable for their unacceptable actions even if UCT doesn’t,” said UCT student Asher Moncho.

Vice Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng was booed as she implored the crowd to hand over names of perpetrators to the institution. The UCT student Representative Council was also criticised for their lack of leadership within the movement.

“UCT has not done anything at all to help and facilitate it’s victims’ cries,” said UCT student Andisiwe Gojela.

Much is still lacking in terms of an adequate response from universities and government. The movement will continue the fight and hold the structures in authority responsible.

Image courtesy of Arron Moos.