Concerned Rhodes academics speak out about #RhodesWar

A group of concerned academics at the University Still Known as Rhodes (USKAR) have issued a statement calling on other academics and intellectuals to join the conversation on rape and sexual violence in society, and to hold the university accountable.

Public attention is currently focused on the issue of rape and sexual violence in our communities and societies more broadly. Decades of awareness-raising work on the part of intersectional, feminist, and critical race scholars and activists has culminated in a global movement that has taken to social media as a new platform upon which to raise issues of social injustice that are typically silenced in the public domain. Globally we saw this recently in the #MeToo campaign, which began in October and has had profound and world-wide effects, leading to the downfall of powerful figures such as Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore.

This is therefore not an issue specific to our university, nor should leaders of a specific institution see any failures in highlighting rape culture as, exclusively, a personal indictment. It is a systemic societal problem and we must understand the underlying causes if we are to address it.

As academics working at Rhodes University, we saw this in April 2016 during the locally (in)famous #RUReferenceList protests; when names of alleged perpetrators of rape (currently studying at, or past students of, the university) were released in a ‘reference list’ on Facebook. On 17 November, Rhodes University banned two gender activist students from the university for life for ‘criminal acts’ allegedly committed during these protests. This has provoked a media storm, most notably in the form of the social media movement #RhodesWar, which trended at number 1 on twitter in South Africa earlier this week, but also in print and online media such as The Mail and Guardian and the SABC.

Campaigns like #MeToo and #RUReferenceList certainly bypass ‘due process’ and have been accused of violating the rights of the accused and constituting a ‘trial by media’. However, the resort to such measures needs to be understood in light of both the power dynamics at play and the pervasive silencing of survivors of rape and sexual violence – where the silencing nature of the act of rape itself is reinforced by the subsequent silencing of survivors’ testimonies in society generally, by our ‘justice’ systems, and by those in positions of immense power. Generally speaking, rape culture thrives in a context of power differentials; part of the solution is to introduce checks and balances so that no one has the power to silence others whom they target or victimise.

Furthermore, intersectional and feminist scholars have over the last two decades turned their attention back to understanding rape and sexual violence in contemporary heteronormative and patriarchal contexts, and significant amounts of this work have made their way into the public imagination. Notably, Pumla Dineo Gqola, in the recent and influential book Rape: A South African Nightmare, calls for the public to shift the stigma and responsibility for rape from the shoulders of its victims to those of its perpetrators. Gqola’s call was timeous, and it relates to both the local and global movement to publically ‘name and shame’ perpetrators of rape and sexual violence – indeed this call was made in a public and well-attended book launch at Rhodes University on February 18 just two months prior to the release of the ‘reference list’.

This is the context within which both the #RUReferenceList and #RhodesWar protests need to be understood. As should also be clear, these two protests have much in common with the #MeToo campaign and the subsequent responses to it. Both created an online platform on which people felt both empowered to speak (and as though they might be heard), and resulted in very real material consequences for those named by survivors of rape and sexual violence.

The primary issue at stake in the #RhodesWar protest is the severity of the punishment meted out against the two women student activists, particularly when compared to the lesser punishments given to some sexual offenders, and the question of whether the university actually had the prima facie evidence against these students for the alleged acts – particularly when one of these students was unable to be present at the hearings. The university is also being accused of a wider pattern of victimising protestors, of a tepid response to sexual violence, and of more generally lacking the appetite for transformation. This last accusation is sharpened by the university’s announcement on 6 December that Council had voted not to change the university’s name. The university responded vigorously to these accusations, claiming that it has been proactive in setting up mechanisms to address sexual violence and transformation, that its disciplinary processes have been fair, and that it is punishing criminal acts and does not have an anti-protest agenda. It claims that the social media accusations are “gross misrepresentations of facts and cynical attempts at manipulating public opinion by some of the students who have been excluded from the University for committing criminal acts.”

It is notable that the voices that have been heard so far have been primarily accusatory. Rhodes is accused of being counter-transformative and of suppressing dissent. Rhodes in turn accuses its critics of misrepresenting facts and stirring up trouble with hidden agendas.

The really key questions are two. Firstly, to what extent is the university embracing transformation and vigorously addressing sexual violence? While the constraints the university faces are real, the accusation that the university has only done what it has been forced to do by the protests, needs to be seriously considered and addressed. Is the university implementing the recommendations on the deep issues outlined by the Sexual Violence Task Team? In this regard, the Task Team produced a 174-page report recommending, among other things, restorative and reparative justice. We are disappointed that these recommendations have not been taken up and that the university has missed the opportunity to be a world leader in addressing rape culture.

Secondly, is the university negotiating the difficult balance between different stakeholders and between the freedoms of expression and protest on the one hand, and maintaining law and order on the other? Or, as its critics maintain, are the university’s responses creating a silencing environment that exacerbates the deeper underlying power imbalances? Do academics and students at the university feel free to raise and discuss issues? Or is an environment being created where people are afraid to speak out against a disciplinary and corporatised university, given what seems to be an ‘undercover’ witch-hunt for ‘dissenters’?

Relatedly, as academics specifically, we are faced with a pressing question: What is our role as academics in this local and global movement? Surely qua academics we are meant to look for truth or meaning, and most academics would agree that we should be answering the relevant questions posed in our context. But are we genuinely able to do so in environments characterised by fear from disciplinary action from above? Are we able to do so when dissenting voices are silenced – when those who do not ‘toe the party line’ are marginalised, if not disciplined? Do we have the necessary academic freedom to do our work? While some will answer yes, there is a worrying number of us who do not feel safe to do so. Indeed, vocal activist members of staff have left and are leaving the university, and positions of power within the university, in droves.

As academics working and teaching at the ‘University still known as Rhodes’ we call for academics and public intellectuals both nationally and internationally to join the very public conversation on the pervasive nature of rape and sexual violence in our societies, and to join us in continuing to do our work despite the culture of silence that surrounds us. At this time, this means continuing to ask the difficult questions, and continuing in our attempts to answer them together.

Finally, as academics at USKAR, we and many of our colleagues are committed to ensuring that our students become critical thinkers and act against the settled norms of our society. Protest is a crucial dimension of critical thinking. Since April 2016, there have been repeated calls for Rhodes University management to engage directly and openly with our student gender activists and to attend seriously to the issues they are raising. Regrettably, management has not done this consistently and it has tended to use the blunt instruments of police violence, an interdict, and then the harsh disciplinary sanctions of a number of individual women student activists. This approach has led to concerns that critical thinking, protest, and dissent from staff or students will not be tolerated at USKAR. Furthermore, our very gravest concern is that, as a result of the way in which the disciplinary process has been implemented, our university is actively depriving the young women student activists of their education. They have not only been expelled for life but stand to lose their credits in the final year of their degrees and have their transcripts endorsed. Their academic work, and our work as teachers, has been retrospectively erased by the decisions of disciplinary committees whose inner workings are shrouded in absolute secrecy.

We thus call on our Vice-Chancellor and his management to commit to a transparent review of the disciplinary procedures that have led us to this point.

Signed by (alphabetically):
Werner Bohmke (Psychology)
Andrew Buckland (Drama)
Janet Buckland (Drama)
Niki Cattaneo (Economics)
Natalie Donaldson (Psychology)
Jeanne du Toit (Journalism and Media Studies)
David Fryer (Economics)
Anthea Garman (Journalism and Media Studies)
Brian Garman (Journalism and Media Studies)
Kirk Helliker (Sociology)
Michael Joseph (Languages)
Lindsay Kelland (AGLCE)
San Knoetze (Education)
Corinne Knowles (Extended Studies)
Philip Machanick (Computer Science)
Lieketso Mohoto (Drama)
Tally Palmer (IWR)
Craig Paterson (History)
Esther Ramani (Languages)
Gillian Rennie (Journalism and Media Studies)
Deborah Seddon (Literary Studies in English)
Nicole Ulrich (History)

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.

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