In the wake of student deaths, varsities work on a plan to stop femicide

A night vigil held for Uyinene Mrwetyana at Wits University
A night vigil held for Uyinene Mrwetyana at Wits University
Azarrah Karrim

University vice-chancellors plan to meet with the office of President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday next week to develop a plan to deal with femicide on campuses.

According to a statement released today by Universities South Africa, which represents 26 university vice-chancellors in the country, they want to engage Ramaphosa’s office with the view of registering their anger and developing a plan of action for addressing the scourge of violence against female students at the universities.

Their statement comes after SA Union of Students and Higher Health, previously known as the Higher Education and Training Health, Wellness and Development Centre on Wednesday released a joint statement denouncing gender-based violence at universities and technical and vocational education and training college campuses.

Universities South Africa said they have been experiencing an epidemic of incomprehensible violence.

“South Africa’s universities are reeling this week from the rape and murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana and the murder of University of Western Cape student Jesse Hess, a truly tragic moment in our country’s history, a moment that has moved South African society, across constituencies, to say enough is enough. This is one of many cases of gender-based harm that afflicts women in South Africa on a daily basis. This is not the society we want – the status quo pertaining to gender-based harm must change. We cannot stand back and allow women to be violated,” their statement reads.

Universities South Africa said there was a need for all branches of society to unite and to work together to eradicate gender-based harm in society.

“We also need political leadership and a practical agenda that works within our national and constitutional laws to ensure that we find a long-term sustainable solution to eradicate this scourge. Our people are angry – angry about the violent abuse of women that happens daily, angry about not being heard, angry about the irrational violence that robs people of their lives, angry about the lawlessness in our country, angry about the wanton destruction of infrastructure and angry about the empty promises and lack of political leadership on these matters. We have every right to be angry,” Universities South Africa said.

Throwing caution

At the same time, Universities South Africa said, the country cannot allow anger to spill over in a way which reduces the country to lawlessness or advances further harm.

“For example, a number of individuals have been named on social media as alleged perpetrators of gender-based harm, without investigation or a determination of the facts around the matter. In the last few days there are cases where individuals, including women, have been identified on social media as perpetrators of gender-based harm, with calls for people to congregate outside their homes to intimidate them. On investigation, it was found that some of these accusations were scurrilous and that these accusers used the current moment opportunistically in order to settle scores on unrelated matters. These are the unintended consequences of social media and mob justice – where people abuse a just cause to further their own agendas,” Universities South Africa said.

The organisation said there are political forces at play who are eager to manipulate this national tragedy to fulfil their own agendas – both within and beyond the academic sector, regardless of the rules of universities or the law of the land.

“In recent days we have seen how mob justice against foreign nationals have left people dead and families decimated because people have no regard for the law. It is imperative to hold those who are guilty of perpetrating gender based harm to account and we should do so through the channels and processes developed to address gender violence. Universities South Africa and its members have a zero tolerance approach to gender based harm and progressive policies are in place to ensure that perpetrators are dealt with decisively.”

The power of agency

Universities South Africa said the country’s higher learning institutions were powerful social institutions with agency.

“They have much to contribute to transforming the culture that produces this form of cowardly violence,” Universities South Africa statement reads.

All complaints of gender-based harm, the organisation said, should be referred to the respective gender equity offices at the universities who have committed to investigating all complaints expeditiously.

In their joint statement, compiled by SA Union of Students president Misheck Mugabe and Higher Health CEO Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, they called on university council chairpersons, vice-chancellors and leadership at TVET colleges to urgently help create accountability mechanisms and infrastructure in order to improve the safety and well-being of women across campuses.

They said this support will be marched “through peer education, clinic, psychosocial assistance and service, and student-activism networks so that none of our friends, daughters and wives need to worry #AmINext!”

They expressed grief at the “horrendous death” of Mrwetyana and also offered their condolences to her family, friends and the UCT and Rhodes University communities.

Flipping the conversation around

The organisations said they support the calls to examine the manner in which the country speaks about gender-based violence, which is committed by men.

“But looking at the conversations it would seem it’s about the women. Women to speak up. Women to dress appropriately Women to protect themselves. Women to learn self-defence. Women to carry pepper spray…This is wrong. Us men are part of the same society as brothers, cousins, friends, husbands. Every man who hits, rapes or murders a woman is known to other men. What do we do – do we speak up? Or do we turn a blind eye, hoping someone else will puck up the issue, and take meaningful action? In fact, what are all of us as men doing to uncover the ones who rape and kill? As a priority, we challenge the men within the higher education sector to speak up. To reject being part of social circles that condone the culture of sexism and patriarchy. To report me who are suspected to have committed crime and violence against women. To demand accountability from university and college leadership. And to help instil respect and positive values and emotions in a new generation of boys and younger men,” their statement reads.


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