Red Tape Won't Cover Rape : #RuReferenceList

2016-04-25 04:00

It’s been another week of student protests in South Africa but this time around the protests were centred on ending rape culture at Rhodes University. While the protest was primarily focused on the affairs at Rhodes and how the university deals with rape and sexual harassment, the protest provided the country with two key issues that I would like to explore over the next two weeks whilst drawing from the . This week I will start off with the core basis of the protest itself and conclude next week by discussing how South Africa has become a police state.

From the outset let me just state that I will not discuss the actual list with names of alleged perpetrators of sexual violence because that is a complex discussion best reserved for another time. My concern is the underlying issue: an ever growing rape culture on campuses.

' Rape is not a Rhodes issue , it's a national issue'

I was disturbed and saddened by the lack of support given to the Rhodes student body in condemning rape. Significant national bodies were surprisingly quiet and their silence almost seemed to suggest that rape is confined to the Rhodes community. Rape is certainly not a Rhodes issue, it is a national issue and the statistics in this regard are shocking. According to the SAPS, 53 617 sexual offences were reported between 2014 and 2015 which translates to 147 cases per day. Independent reports for the same year indicate it is more likely that 485 000 offences were committed. Even though the Sexual Offences Act has been hailed as progressive and broad in its definition of rape, the State has failed to implement most of the provisions of the Act and as a result the anticipated impact has not been seen. There remains a lot more that the government can do to implement the Act effectively but universities can play a significant role in making their campuses rape-free. For this reason, the silence by most universities across the country is certainly indicative of the struggle that still lies ahead in ending the rape culture in tertiary institutions and the country in general.

While writing this piece, I discovered that less than a handful of our universities have a specific policies that deal with sexual harassment and more specifically, rape. In some universities, rape is a misdemeanour no different from violating residence rules. There are harsher penalties imposed for interrupting lectures and plagiarism than there are for rape. Many universities don’t have specific offices equipped to handle sexual harassment and rape cases. Regrettably where policies do exist, most of them remain unaligned with the spirit and letter of the Sexual Offences Act thus narrowing the definition of rape and prejudicing complainants.

Often the victim is castigated and sometimes frowned on for bothering the authorities with reporting such matters at most institutions. Some victims have even been told that because of their 'history' they would not be considered as credible witnesses and should thus drop the case to avoid embarrassment! The stark reality is that many victims are told not to press charges because it is a ‘long process’ or that the reputation of the abuser on campus must be considered. The latter is often the case with ‘powerful’ students or members of staff. This is particularly problematic if one looks at the ‘campus jock’ phenomena. The campus jock is generally understood to be a popular university student with a lot of people who would melt just at the thought of having a date with him. When the ‘jock’ is the abuser, the victim is often told that nobody will believe that he or she could be of interest to the jock and that this rape allegation will affect the reputation of the abuser. Resultantly, there are a disturbingly high number of cases involving ‘campus jocks’ that are not reported to the authorities or investigated. Allegations of management protecting some ‘jocks’ and student leaders are not uncommon in universities and these have certainly surfaced during the current protest at Rhodes with many students accusing management of being more concerned about protecting the privacy of the alleged rapists whose names appear on the #RuReferenceList. There are instances where the victim is tacitly threatened by administrators that social alienation will ensue from laying a charge. This may seem petty to people outside the varsity system but for those of us in it, these are enough for some students not to press any charges and indeed many don’t for these or other reasons.

What should university management teams do to help end rape culture on their campuses?

There is a lot that university management teams can do to end rape on their campuses but my first gripe is with the attitude adopted by the management at Rhodes in responding to the protest. One of the first responses of the management was not to establish a task team to overhaul the existing policy nor was it to launch an investigation into the claims made against the students on the list but instead was to secure an interdict against their own students. That reveals a lack of tact but also and more importantly, insensitivity to matters that affect their students.

Unfortunately, the picture painted by Rhodes in its initial response could be interpreted as saying that keeping the doors of the university open is more important than addressing the menace that is rape. Like many other universities, it seems to forget that the students are the biggest stakeholders and they come first. The response by management unnecessarily escalated what should have been a fairly straight forward protest. The possibility of arrests arising from the protest should have surely passed through the minds of management when it instructed its lawyers to apply for an interdict . Unwittingly , the message communicated by the actions of the management seem to suggest ' You can get raped at Rhodes but do not protest against it'. Had management responded to complaints from students in the same swift manner they applied for an interdict , the university would not have been shut down. I do not think that the demands made by students are in the slightest way unreasonable. All the protestors really wanted was for management to play its role as the guardian of their rights and step in to provide effective means of dealing with the sick boys that masquerade as men. My reference to boys here refers to all perpetrators of sexual violence and harassment since real men know that 'no' is a complete sentence on its own and it should be respected.  The protestors approached the university believing that it would play the role of the Public Protector in securing and advancing their rights to dignity and privacy but management instead chose to play the role of the Apartheid government by seeking the use of force to replace dialogue. Ok , maybe I am being a bit dramatic but the basic argument remains that if management had simply humbled itself to listen and act on these demands, the protest would not have been necessary. It is this kind of attitude  and the unwillingness of management teams to constructively engage with students that prolongs protests and results in unrest.

In my humble opinion, universities without specific policies dealing with rape and sexual harassment must be expected to draft one as soon as possible. It would be desirable if all South African universities adopt the same policy for consistency and uniformity sake. This will send a very clear message: Rape and any forms of sexual abuse are not welcome at any university. What is considered sexual harassment at Fort Hare must be sexual harassment at UJ for example, and in the same vein, a conviction of a sexual offence committed on one campus must be seen as being committed on every campus across the country. This necessitates the need for universities to collaborate and have a shared database. It might sound crazy but universities cannot continue to perpetuate the culture of rape through passivity and silence. I would go as far as suggesting that convicted offenders who change universities should be monitored so that repeat offenders are not given the leeway to commit similar offences. This would be especially key when considering residence /accommodation applications and when vetting student leaders for office. Students who have been convicted of sexual offences at one university must be flagged as potentially dangerous when they enrol at another institution. This may seem harsh and stringent but there are cases of cross-campus rapists who get exposed at one university and change to another university only to repeat the same offences. Sadly, because nobody at the new campus is aware of prior convictions, offenders may well have new victims at the new university. My solution seems drastic but this is also to send out a clear message that rape is a serious matter that will no longer be whispered about and brushed under the carpet.

All universities need to have a centralised office that is specifically mandated to deal exclusively with rape and sexual harassment matters. It is not enough just to set up an office to deal with sexual harassment and rape. The officers must be properly trained, resourced, victim friendly and passionate about ending rape on campuses. Universities must make sure that the office is able to provide psycho-social support services to complainants. Regarding staff training more generally, I happen to think that no member of staff should commence work at a tertiary institution without having undergone sexual harassment policy orientation and training. Student leaders must also undergo mandatory training to ensure that they too are aware of how to support fellow students but most importantly to ensure that they themselves don’t become the abusers.

...because no still means no

In terms of sanctions, universities must stiffen the penalties associated with sexual offences while simplifying the reporting, investigation and prosecution processes. Once convicted, serving student leaders must leave office and be barred from holding any office for the remainder of their stay at the institution. My personal view is that convicted offenders must  be excluded because of the serious nature of the offence. If students can get excluded for failing a course or not having money for fees, what should be done to the student who actively and willingly violates the lives of his fellow students? It comes down to priorities and our penalties should reflect this. In my eyes, rape and murder are sides of the same coin. It’s the murder of the victim’s confidence, dignity and bodily integrity- the scars of which remain visible to the survivor alone. I am happy that we have many survivors who have managed to rebuild after the ordeal but I am also aware that we have many more whose lives remain forever shattered by the act. The ideal is to make sure that nobody ever has to go through that and if it means that stiffer penalties are imposed in institutions then so be it. We must do whatever it takes to end rape.

Universities must spend more resources into understanding the culture of rape on their campuses as this will result in more informed decision making. There is also something to be said about the role of universities in changing the prevailing stereotypical and patriarchal views but that is a discussion for another day. It is however, imperative to begin to challenge patriarchal structures in universities which are major stumbling blocks to ending rape. Lastly, I believe that each university must release annual reports with a full set of statistics of sexual offences on campus as a way of monitoring and evaluating progress. Much more can be done to end rape in our campuses but this requires a collective multi-sectoral approach led by the university management teams.

No exceptions, no excuses – let’s end rape and sexual abuse on our campuses.

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