Taking a leaf out of Albertina Sisulu's book

Francis Petersen

The government's decision that this year's Women's Month celebrations will honour Albertina Sisulu, should be welcomed.

Ma Sisulu, as she was affectionately known, would have been 100 years old this year.

SA History Online describes her as a "political activist and nurse, and one of the most important leaders in the anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa".

But what practical value does Albertina Sisulu's legacy hold for us today – 24 years into post-apartheid South Africa – and specifically for some of the challenges faced in higher education?

Even just a cursory glance over Sisulu's timeline gives an impressive indication of who this formidable woman was: A dedicated young girl who had to take care of her younger siblings from a tender age after her father died and her mother fell ill; a qualified nurse and midwife; the only woman present at the founding conference of the ANC Youth League; sole breadwinner for her five children and extended family while her husband was in prison; community worker; surrogate mother to many; one of the lead organisers of the 1956 women's anti-pass march to the Union Buildings (where they famously told then Prime Minister JG Strijdom: "Now you have touched the women, Strijdom! You have struck a rock!"); victim of political incarceration and countless banning orders; outspoken advocate for justice and equality.

One rejoices that Albertina Sisulu lived to see the end of an oppressive, unjust, and unequal system, and that she could experience the dawn of a new democratic era based on human rights in her lifetime. However, one wonders what she would have thought of how those rights are actively honoured and respected in South Africa today.

Women's Month 2018 is characterised by a tragic event that have shaken the entire higher-education sector to the core: The death of Khensani Maseko at Rhodes University. The vibrant third-year Law student committed suicide after she was allegedly raped by a fellow student. It poignantly and painfully focused the attention on causes that Ma Sisulu had been a passionate advocate for: Women's Rights, Dignity, and Respect. Maseko had embodied all of these.

Gender-based violence against women has been the focus of a number of student protest actions in recent months, but it is by no means a new phenomenon on our campuses. In a recent literature review prepared for the Higher Education and Training Health, Wellness and Development Centre, Lisa Vetten confirms this.  She noted that in the 1980s, the primary focus of social activists was on addressing formalised racism in higher education, with gender inequalities taking a back seat. The '90s saw promising developments in policies to address gender issues on various campuses. This impetus unfortunately slowed down again thereafter, when attention was focused on merging historically white and historically black universities between 2000 and 2005 to promote greater equity in higher education. 

From 2010 there was once again a rise in student activism and protests around gender-based violence, but the coinciding #FeesMustFall campaign tended to enjoy greater support and exposure. This could mean that the time is ripe to finally afford gender-based violence the focused attention it has deserved all along.

The UN High Commission for Refugees refers to gender-based violence as "any act that is perpetrated against a person's will and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships". It encompasses threats of violence and coercion. It can be physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual in nature, and can take the form of a denial of resources or access to services. It inflicts harm on women, girls, men, and boys."

As to the reasons for its particularly high prevalence on campuses of higher-education institutions, Vetten believes that the patriarchal nature of South African society should provide "a starting point of analysis, rather than a total explanation" for the occurrence of gender-based violence. 

She goes on to point out that universities are not miniaturised versions of society only – they are a particular sort of social institution, serving a distinctive purpose, namely higher education. They are populated by mostly young people at a very particular time in their lives. Many of them are away from home for the first time, having their first taste of freedom from parental control, making their own decisions. It's a space where there is often a highly polarised tension between power and vulnerability.

Power, not only in the form of asserting culturally entrenched ideas of masculinity, but that may also stem from material wealth, academic abilities, membership of leadership structures or being older. Vulnerability, on the other hand, Vetten says, can be "constituted by unfamiliarity with an urban context, the lack of money, being new to university life and relationships, along with the need to belong and feel accepted".

This volatile situation is obviously exacerbated when there is limited security around female residences and little control over male students' access.

Previous incidents on campuses all over the country have also taught us that many victims ultimately choose to abandon their complaints when an institution has no clear policy in place on how to deal with them and there seems to be uncertainty about the exact process to follow in reporting them. 

More can be done

How big is the problem of gender-based violence in higher education in actual fact? The largest and most recent survey on the topic was done at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2016. Its findings were alarming. Close to 27% of students, 17% of academic staff, and 13% of administrative staff reported that they had experienced at least one incident of gender-based violence. 

Are universities doing enough? I think more can be done – we need to increase our efforts to eradicate the scourge of sexual and gender-based violence, not only on university campuses, but in society in general. 

The Council of the University of the Free State (UFS) recently approved a progressive policy on sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and sexual violence. It states unequivocally that the UFS will not tolerate sexual harassment, sexual misconduct or sexual violence, and that firm action will be taken against any person proven guilty thereof. It also clearly outlines the formal and informal resolution processes to be followed in gender-based violence incidents. The university commits itself to providing counselling for victims (and perpetrators, should they request it) and undertakes to appropriately investigate reported incidents in a way that upholds the privacy, dignity, and rights of all individuals involved as far as possible. 

The UFS also established a Sexual Assault Response Team aimed at reducing the trauma of the victim and is set up to respond rapidly and swiftly – working by means of the necessary protocols and a set process flow. This means that victims of gender-based violence can receive one-stop legal, medical, and counselling services.

In addition, the university is also planning a series of dialogues – not only to make sure that the content of this policy is widely known, but also an attempt to shed more light on the underlying reasons for this scourge on our campuses. Awareness campaigns are presented continuously to bring the importance of matters such as gender-based violence under the attention of staff and students. 

In encouraging victims of gender-based violence to come forward and by creating practical and sympathetic structures through which they can do so, the university ultimately takes a leaf out of Albertina Sisulu's book. Speaking out against social injustices, even if it's at great risk, is something she stood for throughout her life. 

Clear, progressive policies and sophisticated structures are important tools to communicate our disdain of gender-based violence and to offer appropriate remedial action when it occurs. These actions need to be underpinned by a genuine conviction that human life deserves respect. This conviction should translate into action, and manifest itself in the way we speak to, treat and think about our fellow human beings, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. This conviction should also be taught in our homes and schools, then actively nurtured and promoted in our higher-education institutions, ultimately spilling over into all sectors of South African life as students enter the workplace.

So that today – if you touch a woman, you strike the rock of indignation of an entire campus community, and an entire society, rising up in defence.

- Prof Francis Petersen is rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State.

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