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Image via Nelson Mandela University
Image via Nelson Mandela University

NMU Assault Shocks Many But Changes Little

Adam Butler

The continued war on womxn’s bodies should prompt serious thought on the ways in which we combat a patriarchal society, 

 

TW: discussions of assault and sexual violence

 

The brutal assault of two female Nelson Mandela University students on the evening of Monday 2nd has sparked a campus shutdown, in protest at a perceived lack of security. It has now been confirmed by police reports that both students were raped, and one of the two stabbed, in the process of an armed robbery carried out by a single suspect, who is now under arrest. His first court appearance was held on Friday 6th October, appearing on two charges of rape, and one each of robbery, burglary, and possession of stolen property. He was caught attempting to sell the computer stolen in the robbery.

 

 

The shutdown of South Campus for two days came after long-standing fears around security, particularly in terms of gender-based violence, at NMU. One student recalls that

 

“In 2011, a first year Electrical Engineering student was found strangled to death in her room it was later discovered that her then-boyfriend, committed this heinous crime. The University did not issue a statement or any form of communication on the issue. They swept it under the carpet.”

 

This is anti-management sentiment is shared by many, for good reason,

It has, however, been widely reported that NMU management has by and large agreed to students’ demands, and engaged with students on the ground for significant lengths of time. Some students, therefore, question the point of the shutdown.

But this is an inaccurate representation of the process. As a NMU student points out, “The response from Management was  weak ‘we’ll work harder on getting the stuff done we promised you last year and the year before that.’” Even then, the promises made by NMU management have reportedly already been broken to an extent, with identification checks seemingly lasting less than half a day.

 

Sources have also criticised the portrayal of management as benevolent negotiators. Instead of engaging willingly and timeously, they say, top level officials only negotiate when forced to by protests, and do so then in bad faith. It does seem remarkable that it should take a tragedy of this nature to make management think that closely monitoring CCTV and providing safe routes for students on campus might be a good idea.

This is not an alien issue to Rhodents. UCKAR campaigns to increase CPU visibility and ensure the functioning of the Blue Route are incredibly similar to the NMU demands. As some have already noted, the NMU protests bear more than a passing resemblance to UCKAR’s own #RUReferenceList protests last year.

But according to NMU students, the protests differ in one key way: the unity of reference list. A student who formed part of the NMU delegation to UCKAR during the protests last year remembers that:

“I was one of the student who travelled with the NMMU group. We were warmly welcomed and our inputs were taken seriously in the highest regard … What was apparent, or the impression given at the time we arrived, was that those protests were bereft of ego and attempts at careerism or gaining political traction …The above is in stark contrast to NMU.”

There is a suggestion that the NMU shutdown has been coloured by external political affiliations, as rifts between SASCO and DASO grow. The two groups can be a hindrance to unified protest, and are one of the reasons for the discontinuation of the shutdown. It has also been suggested by students that political leaders are using the protests to gain leverage for their own careers, and unrelated issues. A SASCO member, Athenkosi Daniso, was reported as implying that financial hardship resulting from university related fees should be considered another form of rape against students.

 

In light of these external interferences, the calls for Rhodents to travel and stand in solidarity with NMU must be carefully considered. The NMU student involved in reference list last year continues in wondering “if NMU protest “leaders” would even permit Rhodes to come and show solidarity, and if they did, would it be without incentive?” By the same token however, the influence of UCKAR is, according to NMU students, considerable – as “Rhodents have money. Or at least, that’s outsiders’ perception.” Much as UCKAR waits for UCT or Wits to begin protests, NMU management may well be more concerned if Rhodents magnify the issue. Given UCKAR management’s response to safety concerns, however, this is doubtful.

 

But as much as management seems generally disconnected from issues of safety, students’ own isolated response to the assault is in itself telling. It can hardly be claimed that all students are worried about this issue – as usual, those who are able to distance themselves generally do. Furthermore, even with those who do care, there appears to be a massive disconnect between university spaces and the “real” world. Some UCKAR students, as well as a large part of NMU, have been incensed by this assault – but how many know what crimes are committed on the periphery of Makana? Would Rhodents be willing to travel to PE to protest the rapes that occur in metropolitan cities on a regular basis?

 

The sense of responsibility for university spaces is understandable, and entirely legitimate. The wish to protect other university spaces, because they are so closely linked with our own, is the expression of our own fears, and as such should always be acted on. But our passive response to other crimes deserves some thought. Why is it that rape in a relatively affluent, privileged space like a university is an outrage, but elsewhere must be aggravated by the violence of the crime or the helplessness of the victim before we take notice?

 

The university space has always been a white space, not only in that it was once solely populated by whites, but also in that its current conception is of a very Western ideal – despite the fact that the first university ever established was Moroccan. It may then be that shock at this assault is, other than simply the manifestation of fear, partly the result of conditioning: conditioning toward thinking that such crimes are not the domain of white spaces, and should be reserved for the “other.”

 

If this is a factor, then it follows that considerations of race and economic privilege are a key part of solving gender-based problems. It is the same socio-economic stratification that often leaves the privileged too isolated to care and the disadvantaged too burdened to make time for the struggles of others. The entry of external problems into the conversation on sexual assault prompts a series of necessary pragmatic weigh-ups in determining the response, and the solution, to gender-based violence.

 

These complications are very awkward to navigate. Outrage is entirely desirable, but can it be made equal to the response to every other crime? Already, veterans of #FeesMustFall have suffered burnout and PTSD from the level of emotional and physical investment required. When it comes to UCKAR students engagement with safety, there is a struggle to balance the opposing ideals of safety and inclusivity. An open and accessible campus seems a highly principled position, but how does it stack up next the very real concerns of students whose bodies are endangered?

 

These are complex issues, and cannot be approached as black and white problems of morality, devoid of practical concern.

If there is one thing that is clear, however, it is that there needs to be a way forward – some way of dealing with the epidemic of gender-based violence that doesn’t manifest its own issues. And this work begins at the root of the problem, not as a reaction to the latest outrage. Yes, it is important to reject such incidents when they occur, but it is too little too late to reprimand men for acting out the behaviours that a patriarchal society enjoins them to believe is their right. Male entitlement to female bodies, and every other construct of a violent patriarchy, must combated on an everyday, lifelong basis.

This requires commitment from everyone: from the students, whose voices are more powerful than they think, from parents who shape their children’s perceptions of wrong and right, and from universities, who must show they care more about their students than they do about buildings or even reputations. The idea that a university would rather be known to be lenient toward rapists than to have a politically active and engaged student body is a frightening one. The emancipatory project of students must thus be to stigmatise male entitlement as it deserves, and to articulate clearly their own politics in defiance of external representations of students as violent, irrational and unruly thugs.

At the very beginning of this year, a first year UCKAR student said to a theatre full of students and staff that “men should be entitled to women’s bodies.” This was not that student’s inherent evil or individual malice: it was simply an expression of what male entitlement implies every day. Perhaps if the response to that had been both as outraged as for the NMU assault, and as understanding as students wish for government and management to be, we might begin the process of unlearning the patriarchal narratives that ultimately allow for rape.

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