Swarag Tadepally | Photos: Samuel Aviles & Ivan Blazic
The main agenda for the sixth day of protesting against rape culture in Rhodes University was the much anticipated address by Dr Sizwe Mabizela regarding the updated list of demands put forward by the student protesters which was scheduled for 2pm at the Barratt Lecture Theatre. The crowd started to fill in at around 1:30 pm and by 2pm Barratt 1 was packed beyond capacity with many people resorting to sitting on the steps and standing at the back of the lecture theatre. All the while the crowd was chanting as they waited for the address to begin.
Professor Enocent Msindo spoke to the crowd in Barratt 1 stating that a PA system had been set up in Barratt 2 and that those who did not have a seat should move to Barratt 2 for safety reasons, explicitly stating that no matter which lecture theatre they were in, both rooms would be given an equal opportunity to field questions to Dr Mabizela and the rest of management.
The crowd were not happy with this and refused to leave, drowning out the professor’s voice as they started chanting again, clearly ignoring his request. At this point in time even head of the task team interim committee, Prof. Catriona Macleod joined in on the chanting and was seen dancing along to the delight of the protesters present. A few minutes later there was an announcement stating that, under the request of Dr Mabziela, the meeting be shifted to the Great Hall given the lack of space in Barratt 1. Great Hall was soon filled to capacity and Dr Mabizela, along with the rest of management were waiting on the stage for the proceedings to begin. Once again, Professor Msindo addressed the crowd and requested them to settle down, then started off by calling for a moment of silence in honour of all those who had been affected by rape and/or any form of sexual assault.
He then began to explain how the day’s proceedings would take place, stating that there would be three facilitators namely, a support staff member, a student and himself. One thing he wanted to make clear was that the purpose of the meeting was to create an open forum for the university currently known as Rhodes (UCKAR) and that “the point of this open forum is the recognition of the fact that in our diversity and in our different ideas and origins we are a family and we are joined together by one purpose.” At this point the student facilitator, Lihle Ngcobozi was called upon to state the rules of engagement. These terms were as follows:
- You must raise your hand when you wish to raise a point.
- Reserve all comments until the speaker is done.
- Do not speak unless you are recognised by the chair/ facilitator
- The presumption that all members of management be held accountable, not only Dr Sizwe Mabizela.
- Dr Mabizela will answer questions directed to him.
- Other questions are directed at Chrissie Boughey and Peter Clayton.
When the last point was read, the crowd started calling out for Dr Stephen Fourie to be one of those who answered the questions put forward, as his actions on Wednesday, 20 April, angered the crowd immensely. The forum then had officially begun with all the students, members of academic staff, NEHAWU and other support staff being recognised officially. The support staff facilitator, Mr. Qondakele Sompondo, set out the agenda which was as follows:
- Opening address from the Vice Chancellor
- Student protesters voice out their demands
- The Vice Chancellor responds via Q & A
- A way forward is sought out.
Finally, Dr Mabizela took to the podium to raucous applause from the crowd and they were heard chanting “Sizwe! Sizwe!” as he prepared to make his opening statement. He started off by saying “It has been a long, difficult and painful week for all of us. I thought it would be appropriate for us to grow together as the Rhodes University family and to address the pain.” He re-iterated how this week was especially traumatising for those who were survivors of rape and sexual violence as they had to re-live a painful experience in their lives. It was important he said, to decide how we as a community can work collectively to “heal the wounds” and “find the strength and courage to forge ahead”.
Dr Mabizela went on to stress that a civil discourse of events was required in order to reach a productive consensus that would bring change for the better and to not to resort to “finger pointing or accusing”. He further went on to state that “Rhodes University is dedicated to upholding the constitution and our university will not condone rape or rape culture at all. Every person has a right to their bodily integrity.” It was evident that he was dedicated to ensuring that the right steps be taken in eradicating rape and rape culture, as he went on to say that “One rape is one rape too many”. He was adamant that Rhodes University would never protect a rapist under any circumstances, but did point out that there were flaws in certain clauses present in the student constitution regarding this issue.
“I will not disrespect my students” – Dr Mabizela.
“Our students are right to be angry, but you need to understand that securing a conviction of rape is excruciatingly difficult because our constitution works under the concept of being innocent until proven guilty”. To this end, a member of staff in the crowd brought up the fact that in the case of rape, it is highly traumatising for the victims to have to come forward and file charges, something which the vice chancellor also touched upon as he reaffirmed how there was an imbalance regarding rape between the victim and the culprit. All statements made by the Vice Chancellor were tackling the issue and he was sufficiently answering to the list of demands put forward by calling for bold recommendations, both short and long term, some of which were:
- Strengthening the training of staff members to handle such situations.
- Increasing the capacity of our harassment offices.
- Any student found guilty of any form sexual violence or rape will be excluded from this university.
- Any student found guilty of any sexual assault will have their transcript endorsed
- Calling for the Department of Law at Rhodes University to look into the sexual offences act.
- The development of a system that would monitor the progress on all issues related to rape and sexual violence to ensure a positive change was being made.
- Being committed to using external prosecutors to prosecute those who commit the horrendous criminal acts of rape and sexual violence. (The LRC has offered its assistance in this regard).
Despite all these positive changes being well received from the crowd, Dr Mabizela had to remind everyone of the fact that until the accused had been formally charged, our constitution demands that we presume the person to be innocent until proven guilty but did ensure that any person who has been formally charged can be suspended, subject to the outcome of a pre-suspension trial. Ending his speech with the touching words “Aluta Continua” he left the podium, to allow the student representative of the protesters to then go over the amended list of demands that were released on Thursday, 21 April.
“You will all graduate one day, not one of you will drop out, except for the rapists who shall be sent away”
– Dr Mabizela.
After the list was read out, the floor was opened for questions directed towards Dr Mabizela and management. Two major points that were brought up repeatedly by students and staff members in the crowd was firstly, the interdict that was called for by the university and secondly, the actions of Dr Stephen Fourie and Dr Iain L’Ange on Wednesday, 20 April, whereby they stood behind the police and did not attempt to stop the police who were using heavy force on the protesting students whereby rubber bullets, tear gas and the arresting of students who were protesting took place. Dr Mabizela attempted to respond to both of these points, but the crowd was intent on listening to Dr Fourie and L’Ange account for their actions, and for Rosaan Krüger, the Dean of the Law faculty to explain why the interdict was not being retracted. The responses from Dr Fourie’s and L’Ange were considered rude and inadequate which left the crowd agitated. Similarly there was no satisfactory answer as to why an interdict was made in the first place and why it wasn’t being removed currently.
Due to the discontent of the crowd with the responses given, the meeting started to get disruptive as the protesters felt that yet again, management was not on their side and the existence of the interdict was something that could not be overlooked. The meeting ended abruptly as a result and an impromptu meeting was held by the student leaders of the protests at the Drostdy Lawns, where it was established that unless the interdict was retracted, the protesters would force the university into a further academic shutdown beginning Monday, 25 April. Apart from that, the public apologies from senior management, particularly those of Dr Fourie and Dr L’Ange are still demanded by the protesters and they also want a further public apology from all the House Committee members, Sub-Wardens and Wardens who had threatened students who were taking part in the protests with hours.
In the midst of all this it is important to note that Dr Colleen Vassiliou had also spoken at the meeting to talk about the saddening loss of Londiwe Jobela, a Rhodes student who had passed away tragically as a result of an asthma attack. There is currently a vigil scheduled for today, Sunday, 24 April, at 6pm. People wishing to be present at this vigil are requested to attend in an all-black attire and come along with a candle.