Living in fear on campus

2007-11-17 00:00

“It took the rape of an American student to highlight the agony of South African students living in fear in residences that are the stomping grounds of gangsters.”

Speaking after the rape of a 21-year-old American exchange student in the early hours of Tuesday morning at the Mabel Palmer residence on Howard College campus, students yesterday told Weekend Witness that thefts, beatings, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and rape are a way of life in residences on the University of KwaZulu-Natal's (UKZN) Howard College and Westville campuses.

Female students said they are constantly sexually harassed, both by fellow students and by the university's security guards. They said security guards are also frequently found sleeping in residences' television rooms and visitors are free to enter and leave without signing in or showing any identification. It is dangerous to walk on the campus. Security check points are not properly manned and security equipment is broken, they said.

Some said they even welcome this week's rape as it might highlight the fact that students with nowhere else to live are risking their lives for an education. All, fearing intimidation, refused to give their names.

Lecturers also said they would be had up for bringing the university into disrepute - a charge that has been levelled against academics in the wake of various high-profile scandals.

“As lecturers and teachers, we are in loco parentis, but we cannot look parents in the eye and say we are keeping their children safe. There are regular muggings and petty thefts. This place is a haven for criminals. This rape is just the tip of the iceberg. This issue is being underplayed, swept under the carpet,” said one.

Heated online debate between academics on Thursday and Friday painted a chilling picture. Lliane Loots, speaking on behalf of the UKZN Gender-Based Violence Lobby Group, said this week's rape was far from an isolated one.

“I personally know of eight other South African students who have been raped in the last four months. Their absolute lack of faith in [university security], Student Housing and the police meant they did not report these rapes, but chose to silently get on with their lives.”

She said the lobby group has been raising the problem with university authorities for about 18 months. Dialogue has deadlocked.

“Several weeks ago men were attacked for ‘being gay'. Music is played so loudly at times that people get eardrum pain while trying to sleep, work, talk. Doors will be banged for hours with poles or hard slaps and hits. Students barricade themselves in rooms with iron tables in fear. Theft is a daily reality. These are daily humiliations and stresses and worse, and they are actions of students on other students by and large,” said one lecturer.

Another entry read: “I am so glad that you have put this issue out there. I have had a number of international students who have been staying in residence come to talk to me about their experiences there.

“They have to bolt their doors for fear of men breaking them down at night. They can't leave anything in an unlocked space without it being stolen. They are constantly harassed, both inside the university and on the streets.

“They have found being in Durban very disturbing and can't wait to go home to their own ‘less developed' countries.”

A third letter added: “All through the last days I have, for the fifth time this term alone, fielded dozens of calls, visits (off and on campus), e-mails and other reports from my students about their fears and experiences … I also know that subsequent to this, a raid was conducted in the residence and dozens of men were found sleeping with their student female partners in a female-only residence.”

All lecturers said they fear the intolerable situation in residences is undermining students' academic performances. They agreed that university management is not prepared to step in and resolve it. Commenting on the online debate, a senior lecturer said there were promises to put in place a student security plan after a student was raped on the Westville campus in May last year.

Despite numerous attempts, executive dean of students Trevor Wills, could not be reached for comment.

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