[intro]Police met student protests at Rhodes University with violence on the morning of Wednesday 20 April when five students were arrested for protesting on a public road. They were shot at with stun grenades on Lucas Avenue and on South Street, both of which are entrances to the university where students had set up barricades as part of the academic shutdown. One student was hospitalised due to a panic attack caused by the stun grenades. Chelsea Haith reports on unfolding events in Grahamstown, misrepresentation in mainstream media, and what it will take to tackle the scourge of sexual violence on university campuses.[/intro]

In the tide of national media coverage of ‘violent’ and ‘naked’ protestors at Rhodes University last week, the meaning of the protest is largely misunderstood and misrepresented. Contrary to what comments on prominent media websites suggest, students are not ‘lazy’, ‘skipping class’ or ‘just here to sing and dance’.

If a womxn is prepared to be shot at while protesting topless in public for the right to live her life without the constant threat of sexual violence, it is safe to say that she is not using this as an opportunity to skip class. It is much easier to go to class than it is to lay your body on the line for social justice.

Once again, for national media and for those members of the public who remain wilfully ignorant of the harm their discourse of erasure does: this protest is about rape culture and the proliferation of sexual violence on our campus and nothing else.

It is perhaps symptomatic of our rape culture that the meaning of the protest is being lost in the spectacle of the protest itself. Representations by national and international media as well as ignorant commentators have cast the student protestors as irrational, emotional and violent radicals. The consequences of this are twofold: they obscure the purpose of the protest and shift the public’s attention away from discussions about rape culture and patriarchal social structures. They also contribute to a violent racist discourse that constructs women, and in particular black women, as overly emotional, ‘angry’ and unwilling to ‘hear reason’. But in the face of silencing tactics by management and society, years of being ignored and being subject to rape and sexual harassment policies that deny victims justice, what other choice was left but to take to the streets and shut down the university?

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Context of the protest

Members of the Gender Action Project with the support of Naledi Mashishi, the SRC Activism and Transformation officer, put up posters outside the Main Library on campus a week prior to the protests. These posters were put up peacefully and bore statements about the rape culture at Rhodes. One of them read: “You are more likely to be excluded for plagiarism than you are for rape.”

The protest, named ‘Chapter 2.12’ is in reference to the section of the Constitution that guarantees every person the right to safety and security.

Students at Rhodes stood in solidarity with a national protest campaign aimed at drawing attention to the issue of rape culture on university campuses. The university management took the Chapter 2.12 posters down twice, and so on Thursday 14 April, protestors put up a sign on the library wall that read: ‘WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED’.

On Sunday 17 April a group of anonymous rape survivors posted a list containing eleven men allegedly accused of rape. While there was no explanation given as to what these names referred to, social media exploded with allegations of rape and sexual assault against these and other men who are former and current Rhodes University students. It is interesting to note that while no explanation was given, almost everyone at Rhodes knew what the list meant, which perhaps gestures to something broken in our society.

Why protest?

Rape culture is wound so tightly into our patriarchal social structures and it’s suffocating us. We just want to be able to walk home safely. We just want to be able to have relationships secure in the knowledge that our partners won’t rape us. We should not have to avoid university tutorials because the tutor is a known rapist. We should not be afraid to go to lectures because rapists will be there. We just want safety and security of person, as Chapter 2, Section 12 of the Constitution guarantees us.

Policing the female body

Last Tuesday afternoon, almost 40 female students protested topless, or in their bras, with signs reading: ‘No Means No’ and ‘Still Not Asking For It’ written across their bodies. The police deemed this public indecency and threatened to disperse the crowd with stun grenades and rubber bullets, with one officer saying, “They need to go, there are no more negotiations.”

Several men were also topless in the crowd, but this is not deemed public indecency. Why is the female body so terrifying to the public eye? Must it be hidden away because it causes men to become aroused, unable to control themselves? This discourse implies that men have no agency, and is the perfect example of how rape culture and patriarchy fails men, women and non-binary people alike.

The Law

Students reporting rape are frequently told that it is not worthwhile trying to prosecute, as their evidence is insufficient. The definition of rape in South African law is woefully limited and reporting is often advised against because the evidence is usually insufficient. The cost and process of the trial is also said to be traumatic with no justice served to the complainant. Many rape victims at Rhodes can attest to this harrowing experience, and our national rape statistics show that approximately only 1 in 9 reported rape cases are successful.

Right or wrong?

The disruption of lectures, which in some cases left students crying due to intimidation by protestors, and the holding of one of the alleged rapists ‘hostage’ on Sunday 17 April cannot be condoned or supported. The university cannot afford to remain closed. Lecturers are calling for classes to resume, as valuable teaching time has been lost. But what will happen to the discussions and necessary work that needs to be done to change the institutional and social culture at this university should the university resume normal operations? The protest’s intention is to make a fundamental change in the way we function as an institution and to then effect this change in our community. As one survivor put it, “When we stand up and say we cannot do this anymore, we cannot have business as usual.”

This anger is valid

At a vigil held in support of rape survivors traumatised by the protests on Sunday 24 April, one rape survivor said that the university’s inaction and inadequate response to rape reports, “is an injustice because I have to hide my pain”. Another thanked the crowd for allowing her voice to be heard after years of keeping quiet and added, “I feel your anger flowing through me, thank you for having that anger.” The anger felt by the protestors is not irrational; it is borne from a place of genuine pain, from years of erasure and silencing and sexual abuse. This anger is valid, and should not be ignored.

Look inside

This protest is relevant to everyone. We are trying to dismantle a system that is damaging to us all. The list of names gives protestors a focus, but what we are trying to change is a foundational part of our society. It is dangerous to think, “Those are the evil people and we are the good people,” because that erases the necessity of the work we all need to do within ourselves. Rape culture is not something that happens ‘out there’. Rather, by its very nature, it is what exists ‘in here’, in our languages and social interactions, even in our internal, private thoughts. It is not enough for policies to change. We need to interrogate the everyday sexisms and harmful discourses at play in our homes, our friendships and our workplaces to make this change meaningful.

Chelsea Haith is the Media Officer of the Gender Action Project (GAP) at Rhodes University.

Image courtesy of ARTicles by Sarah Rose de Villiers.