20th April. Wednesday morning. Three crystal rocks hitting a sheet of iron-zinc with precise speed and impact, is what it sounds like.
I jump out of bed and leap haphazardly onto the street, still entranced in drowsiness, as the sun shines corrosively in my eyes. In a gentle sudden, I feel someone embracing me, holding onto me with the tender might of a child refusing to be separated from a beloved guardian. Still battling to gain clears eyesight, I could tell through my peripheral senses that we were caught standing in a moving wave of student protestors. I look into the eyes of my embracer. Her face is stained with disappointment and fear, as her tears break the banks of eyes. It is my dear friend, one of the first people who had confided in me about being raped at the University currently known as Rhodes. It wasn’t until I looked into her eyes, and felt the atmosphere of devastation in the air that I knew that we had been failed us.
Five students were students were arrested while the rest of the protesting students were shot at with rubber bullets that day. Young women disregarded persistent humiliation directed towards them, by stripping their bodies bare and leading the movement the previous day. Men accused of being known perpetrators of sexual violence were put ushered into safe-houses while, the institution’s visibly divided management tranquilised the entire university with deluding umzabalazo-rhetoric throughout the unrest- eventually acquiring a legal interdict against staff and the student populous.
So what are the truths that #RUReferenceList has unearthed?
Institutions are inherently inhumane. Especially those which are rooted in the violent history of the colonial conquests made in South Africa and the subsequence of Apartheid. The University currently known as Rhodes does not see itself as being a necessary shareholder in the lives of the bodies who attend it. While the university claims that it is committed to the decolonisation project, it refuses to actively acknowledge the cultures which enable sexual violence to be a prevalent on campus, as part of that decolonisation project. More often than not, the university has gotten into trouble for lazily relying on its access to the law in order to protect itself from true accountability, than being an institution which does the robust work of challenging its own rules to protect the bodies it houses. The University currently known as Rhodes– as with any other (historical) organisation in South Africa- has proven that institutions are not yet capable of seeing tragedy from the eyes of those who endure it. This is what makes institutions inhumane.
Sexual violence is a long-standing system of pillaging and privileging. Rape is a (historical) tool wielded by perpetrators to sentence people into a certain experience and narrative of victimhood. In an intimate and energetically powerful meeting between a hand-full portion of the student body and staff held recently, we attempted to deconstruct what the notion of “power” that is often associated with sexual violence. Dr. Nomalanga Mkhize described rape as a historical method of control that binds victims to their perpetrators, subsequently allowing oppressive institutions and cultures to exist. “Certain people know they can wield guns; certain people know they can wield the laws; and, certain people know they can wield the rape bind. They have it in their back pocket, to bind whoever they wish” Mkhize explained. The implications of this reality for a multiracial and multicultural society such as the University currently known as Rhodes are deeply complex. It is clear that institutions (especially those of higher learning) can no longer afford to treat sexual violence as an arbitrary part of one’s private life. Whether or not the University currently known as Rhodes is ready commit itself to re-centering sexual violence in the contemporary context of South Africa’s socio-academic/economic/political project, is up for necessary debate.
Inter-generational dishonesty is real. I watched Beyoncé’s muso-documentary as a way to temporarily escape the sombreness on campus. Her documentary pays meticulous attention to the lineage of Black women and Black men, as political bodies and human beings. It wasn’t until she questioned, “am I talking about your father or your husband?” that I began to re-think deeply about the legacy of (sexual) violence that embellishes South Africa on many levels. It is very clear that there are multiple lacerations to the umbilical cord that connects the generation that inherited democracy and those who existed before it. The trap of the rainbow nation ideal succeeded not only in brainwashing young people into thinking we lived in a utopias society. It also trapped the generation that lived through systematic racial hatred into thinking that bringing Apartheid into contemporary socio-academic/economic/political/interpersonal discourses would be harmful (at best) and unnecessary (at worst). As an example to illustrate this point, I often imagine a hypothetical society that would be skilled in correctly tracing the steps of sexual violence as a means of control through racial dominion for economic gain during the times of colonisation and Apartheid, and how sexual violence has subsequently contributed to the construction of the various masculinities which perpetuate this violence today. But, we don’t live in that kind of society. Our political parties continue to keep their mouths closed, as our parents either dictate in panic or remain silent. We don’t speak to one another. We are not willing to educate one another. The generational gap between us continues to grow.
It is an opportunity for myself, for my university and for the rest of the country to get clear about our individual and collective condition. It is an opportunity for institutions to become humane; for sexual violence to be properly reckoned with; and, for honest intergenerational conversations and commitments to eradicating this sexual violence from our society. This piece is not about providing the answers that will resolve everything. This piece is about recognising #RUReferenceList as a turning point for everybody.