This morning I woke up and like most people logged onto Facebook — out of habit. I saw a friend’s status about a reference list. I naively thought she was referring to her PhD reference list. I made a glib comment with an emoji and scrolled down for more news. The next status I saw made reference to the list but with more context: “#RUReferenceList this is real! Check twitter!!! As an alumni this sh*t must fall at that University that is currently known as Rhodes. Patriarchy must fall! I know too many rape survivors at Rhodes. There is a rape culture at that University in iRhini and the institution defends it. From subwarderns who think they’re prefects to warderns who rememeber their sexiest ways back in the day at Rhodes and feel that boys are being boys so relax. I saw traumatized female bodies in dinnig halls and tutorial classes. Girls who drugged themselves to forget because they needed the degree. Bodies that were brutalised by young men who felt at ease to violate women’s bodies at that University that is currently known as Rhodes University. Rhaaaaaa! #RUReferenceList.”
With fear beginning to simmer in my belly I braced Twitter to discover the maelstrom that’s been unfolding at Rhodes University since last night. Activate, the student newspaper at Rhodes University has been tracking the developments on the story and reading the piece helped me get up to speed with what has happened. I won’t rehash the events but the issues unfolding are more interesting.
I must say that I believe the women who drew up the list of men who’ve raped and assaulted them at Rhodes University.
Women always have more to lose when they expose a rapist and risk secondary victimisation if they are the rape survivor reporting a rape. This is nothing new in South Africa. Rape culture has become so embedded in our society our first instinct is to defend the “alleged” rapist because there are laws protecting him from being exposed until the crime has been confirmed. We are also a society that easily distrusts women who say they’ve been raped until the woman has proven she’s been raped. Our knee-jerk reaction is to protect the men and persecute the women who say they have been raped.
The women at Rhodes University have said that enough is enough. How is it that on a campus that has had 22 rapes since January little action has been taken? As a Rhodes alumni, I know people who have been raped and assaulted by boyfriends and people they know in their res rooms. It is not good enough that Rhodes University only has one harassment officer to report their grievances to.
The legal system in South Africa has made it very difficult for women to report rape: another open secret. Most women are further victimised and harassed by the police rather than being protected. The need for women to prove rape with their bodies and in the case of the policy at Rhodes University “victims to prove that their perpetrators intended to rape them” means that women become the centre of the problem and not the men. The onus lies on the women to prove that they have been violated rather than the perpetrator disproving that he did not intend harm. For as long as the burden of proof is on women to prove rape and sexual assault, violence against women will continue.
My fear is that this event will become another hashtag. No one will be removed from their positions. Because once again women are simply being hysterical and overreacting because Rhodes University has systems in place to deal with the issue. This event will be another hashtag alongside Oscar Pistorius being back in court. Today is also a year since Jayde Panayiotou was kidnapped and raped. These stories emerge alongside many other murders and rapes that have not been reported or fully investigated where women are raped and killed by people they know, people we know and love in our communities.
The problem is that the systems in place are not enough. Structural systems have failed women and they will continue to fail them. This issue is beyond Rhodes University and its systems because this is about an insidious rape culture in a world that views women’s bodies as objects for the taking and women’s voices as background noise that can simply be ignored.
We live in a country where our current president was acquitted of rape charges. The implications of the case have fueled the ideas people have about the rape culture in South Africa. As women we must refuse to be ignored. We must rage and continue to rage until men around us think twice about their actions. We must rage against systems that seek to delegitimise our voices are replaced with systems we have created to protect ourselves. We must rage against a state that has made rape culture acceptable.
* The title of this piece is from the One in 9 Campaign which was established in 2006 to support “Khwezi” during the Jacob Zuma rape trial.