How to Safeguard the Safety, Dignity and Equality of Students on Campuses in South Africa

Sunday, April 17, 2016, saw the Queer Confessions, Questions and Crushes — a group of activists at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa — making public the names of 11 male students who were alleged to have committed rapes against fellow students on campus. The list, published on the group’s Facebook page, quickly went viral under #RUReferenceList.

Subsequently, student activists rounded up some of the men named on the list and forcefully detained them to try and compel the university management to take action. The students chose to take this seemingly extreme step because they — and other students on campus — felt that their university was not doing enough about the sexual violence occurring on campus. The protesters disrupted classes with gatherings on campus, had bare-breasted demonstrations and even clashed with police.

This led to the university suspending classes on April 20. The university also obtained an interdict against the protesters to stop them from disrupting classes — a move the students saw as an attempt to silence them. While classes have resumed and the violent protests seemed to have died down, the #RUReferenceList campaign continuesin other forms, including social media and “a question-asking campaign,” wherein students going to lectures would force a discussion on rape culture in their classrooms instead of carrying on with “business-as-usual.”

The university has also promised to take some action, and indeed has begun a number of interventions, including an interim committee tasked with drawing up terms of reference towards, among others, strengthening the university’s responsiveness to sexual violence; enhancing a safe environment in which victims can report confidentially; reviewing the institution’s policies and procedures relating to sexual offences; increasing the Harassment Office’s capacity to help survivors of rape and sexual violence; and employing external prosecutors for rape cases.

While the problem is most visible right now at Rhodes University, rape is a problem across South Africa. For example, according to Interpol, South Africa is the world’s rape capital, and its women here are more likely to be raped than educated. The country’s Law Reform Commission estimates that there are 1.7 million rapes a year.

The poor (or lack of) action by universities across the country suggests they have not come to grips with rape on theircampuses. Many in management positions are quick to cite statistics to prove that the cases at “this” university are “fewer than the national average,” and to cast the problem as one that is “out there” and not here.

But it does happen here, and it happens a lot! For example, responding to a reporter from The Daily Vox, a Universityof Cape Town student stated, “rape culture at UCT is rife, more especially in residences.” A University of the Witwatersrand student responded “… those who rape do so because they are in a place of power.”

It’s high time that universities take seriously their responsibility to safeguard the safety, dignity and equality of women on campus. This is how: First, attention needs to be paid to the social and academic spaces students occupy. Making these spaces safe involves simple measures, such as putting more lighting in the streets, installing surveillance cameras at strategic spots inside and outside buildings, having professional security personnel that are actually trained to protect students and staff and to investigate and secure convictions when crimes are committed.

Second, in addition to the rape culture on campus, there are high rates of pregnancy and motherhood among first- and second-year students at universities. This suggests that many young women and men have inadequate gender andsexual and reproductive health rights and education, something universities could offer in their curricula.

Third, institutions must put in place measures that ensure safety and ease of reporting violence. Right now, reports suggest that only 46 percent of victims report to police. One major reason is that the burden of proof is on the victimto prove the rape. This can be challenging when, so often, it is the word of the victim against the word of the attacker. Social media posts by the student activists at Rhodes University and many others across the country suggest that attempts to report sexual assault and rape are often met with responses such as “Respect his privacy”; “You’ll ruin his future”; “We’ll conduct a private investigation”; “Think of the university’s reputation”; etc. It is understandable, then, why many people who are raped are reluctant to report.

Linked to this, whenever reporting comes up, the immediate response by many is a concern about false rape accusations. Those are unfortunate, but a very small percentage of all reports. For example, Lisa Vetten ofthe University of the Witwatersrand’s Institute for Social and Economic Research asserts thatthe number of reported cases does not represent the number of actual rapes, as most women never report it.As a 2002 Medical Research Councilreport suggests, only one in nine women in South Africa report their rape. False reports make up less than a percentage of all the reported rapes in South Africa. Thus, rather than treating every report of rape as potentially false, universitiesneed to treat each one as a very real possibility, investigate it and take appropriate action.

If we are to eradicate rape culture on university campuses, protecting victims rather campus rapists must be prioritized. Policies and programs that help survivors now and create an environment where perpetrators are not protected and where a “zero tolerance” stance to rape is adopted, are long overdue.