Menu Close

Angry student protests have put rape back on South Africa’s agenda

A deep-seated and sustained anger against sexual violence is emerging in South Africa. AIDS Healthcare Foundation/Flickr

Rape is never far from the headlines in South Africa. But while protests about corruption and service delivery are common, sexual violence is not an issue that often brings people to the streets. A university in one of the country’s small towns is changing this.

Grahamstown’s Rhodes University suspended its academic programme on April 20 2016. This followed a week of student protests against the university’s failure to adequately support people who experience sexual violence. There were gatherings, meetings, disruptions, naked protests, demands for change, barricading and a flurry of social media input.

Things turned ugly with police firing rubber bullets, using pepper spray and arresting people. The university’s management obtained an interdict against protesting students. Emotions have run very high. People have not slept for days. The counselling centre is struggling to cope with the demands on its time.

What does all of this mean – not just for the university, but for South Africa’s ongoing fight against rape culture and hetero-patriarchal, gendered norms?

Systems stacked against survivors

The protest at Rhodes was set in action by two events. One was an awareness campaign consisting of posters relating to rape culture at the university. The second was the posting of a list featuring alleged perpetrators’ names. These events set off a groundswell of support: a lid was lifted on the anger fuelled by the injustice of sexual violence. Wrath – at the act itself, the silence, the othering, the stigmatisation, the secondary victimisation, the victim-blaming – can no longer be contained. The protesters include men and women, black and white people, but it is angry young, black women who are at the forefront of the movement.

Some people are quite astounded by what’s happening at the university. Surely, the thinking goes, Rhodes is well set up to deal with these issues. It has hosted a successful annual anti-rape Silent Protest for some years. It has a harassment office, a counselling service and an established sexual offences policy. It offers several gender courses and is home to the student-driven Gender Action Project as well as having a Senate subcommittee called the Gender Action Forum.

But to think this is to miss the major point. Initiatives like these, and the many others that exist in South Africa, haven’t fundamentally shifted the hetero-patriarchal power relations on which sexual violence, as well as the stigmatisation and silencing of survivors, are based.

Some senior staff at Rhodes have argued, with the best of intentions, that nothing can be done unless the survivors of sexual violence lay a charge. They fail to recognise that the gendered dynamics within which women live, including a legal system stacked against convictions, make such reporting virtually impossible.

The significance of the protest

The protests come at a time that’s marked by the emergence of a deep-seated and sustained anger. This anger refuses to see sexual violence simply as a case of criminality that needs reasonable structures for prosecution. Instead, it foregrounds the systemic injustices within which women’s bodies are objectified, denigrated and abused.

Sexual violence in South Africa is pervasive. It occurs across the usual dividing lines of race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and religious belief. The country is represented both nationally and internationally as being “rape dense” – and with good reason.

But what will happen from here? Will the protests be remembered ten years from now as the moment when rape culture started to unravel in South Africa? Or will people look back on this as a difficult time that exhausted everybody and made a few small gains? Clearly, the answer lies in what happens next.

Learning from similar events in the past would be important. For example, in the US in the early 1970s, the radical feminist movement organised Speak Outs about sexual violence. There was a groundswell of support as in the case of the Rhodes anti-rape protests. Gradually, however, the movement was tamed and professionalised. Responses to rape became psychologised. Individuals were tasked with taking on the labour of recovering from a traumatised state rather than systems being required to fundamentally change.

Balancing the ethics of justice and the ethics of care

There appear to be two key issues in moving forward. The first is whether the energy generated from the protest will be sustained. Will it be able to start the complex and difficult process of systemic change – to effect the social justice concerning sexual violence that has, so far, escaped South Africans?

The second is whether the movement will manage to balance the ethics of justice with the ethics of care. A key element of feminist work is providing safe, caring, contained spaces for healing and solidarity. As in the US example from the 1970s, though, there is the potential for this impetus to become the main focus with the drive for justice taking a back stage.

And, if social justice is the aim, then nuanced understandings of justice are needed. Retributive justice must be supplemented with frameworks that provide reparative and restorative justice. The politics of recognition – for example, of women’s bodies as sites of beauty and agency – needs to be paired with the politics of redistribution – of economic resources and equitable gendered power relations.

Authors’ note: There are discussions about the name of Rhodes University as part of a movement to decolonise higher education in South Africa. Many refer to the institution as the University currently known as Rhodes. We retain the name Rhodes for ease of reference while at the same time problematising its easy deployment.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 162,000 academics and researchers from 4,590 institutions.

Register now