Is the time for South Africa to have the difficult discussion about rape finally here? Is it now time to do our utmost to provide protection and care for survivors and those vulnerable?
The release of a list of 11 male students accused of sexual assault at Rhodes University, and subsequent protests by students, could serve as that much-needed springboard.
A list of demands drawn up by students on Monday included changes to be made to the “current sexual policy”, including an ironing-out of the definition of rape to “include those who are forced to penetrate another”. They also want changes to a regulation that requires “victims to prove that their perpetrators intended to rape them”.
They further demand “mandatory sensitivity training for staff”, including the campus protection unit.
Students also called for a team to be appointed “to deal with cases of abuse and assault” to supplement the one “harassment officer” the institution already has.
Promisingly, these demands show that the students have not lost the importance of the issue at hand in the haze of protest. That being, protection for the vulnerable, dissection into and definition of rape, and help for those affected by sexual assault.
It is encouraging to see students — much like we saw during the Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall, and Open Stellenbosch movements — once again seeing themselves as catalysts for change and making enough noise to hopefully kick-off a desperately needed conversation about rape.
The release of the list is itself significant: for one it shows that so-called rape culture is universal — people are vulnerable everywhere, even in the presumed upper-class spaces.
It must be noted, however, that naming the 11 was an untactful move. While they are accused of quite a serious crime, naming them at this stage is defamatory, and flies in the face of innocent until proven guilty.
However justified their — and the rest of the public’s — anger may be, students should appreciate that the 11 deserve their right of response, and that the proper channels have to deal with the matter. Using numbers to create enough noise so that the powerless can have a voice is undoubtedly noble, but it must not descend into something that may prove counterproductive in the greater scheme.
What they can do — and surely will do — is use their energy and time to start creating a university culture that promotes safety, sensitivity, and comfort to those affected by sexual offences, and one that prosecutes offenders. Education around rape will be key in addressing the rot.
As they did with race in movements last year, students have the ability to influence uncomfortable — but necessary — conversations into the larger South African plane.
And in doing so, they can set an example the rest of the country can emulate.