Rhodes University has a rape problem. Why?

The release of the #RUReferenceList at Rhodes University has sparked protests against the handling of sexual violence complaints at the Grahamstown campus. The DAILY VOX spoke to staff and students to understand why the existing policies at the university are problematic.

For survivors of sexual assault in South Africa, the justice system is broken.

In the rare instances that rape cases do make it to court, the rate of convictions is paltry.

The onus remains on the survivor to prove that she was violated. In the meanwhile, the rate of rape and other forms of sexual violence remains high. According to the Rhodes SRC, there are at least 21 students who have been raped or sexually assaulted at the university since the beginning of this year alone.

If past complaints are anything to go by, then finding justice for these survivors will be near impossible. It is in this vacuum of justice that Rhodes students created the #Chapter212 campaign in which activists used a mixture of anecdotes to accuse university management of failing to take rape-survivors seriously. The #Chapter212 activism was also the precursor to the  release of the #RUReferenceList – in which the names of those accused of rape or sexual assault on campus were published online.

Students have protested peacefully around campus but on Wednesday morning, police clamped down on the protesters, firing stun grenades and tear gas into the crowds of assembled students. Activists have pointed out that police appear to be better equipped to arrest protesters than they are to arrest perpetrators of sexual violence.

The demands of the protesters include changing Rhodes’ policies towards sexual assault, a call for one of the men on the list to step down from an SRC leadership position, and the establishment of a task team to manage rape and assault cases on campus. While no group of students, or activists, has taken claim for releasing the list, it has brought into focus the rampant failures of the justice system, and the university, to grant redress to survivors.

Students at Rhodes say the problem is that the university trivialises sexual violence.

“There is a higher punishment for things like plagiarism,” Mandla Sithole* told the Daily Vox. “You actually get a worse punishment for plagiarism than when you actually rape someone.”

And students who have reported their assault to the university say the system is deeply flawed.

“The people handling my case kept giving the impression that my case wasn’t as bad as the other cases they’ve dealt with and I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously. At the session where I gave my statements, one of them explained to me, that they ‘didn’t represent [me], they represented the university’, which just made me feel like the only significance of my pain was that it might make the university look bad,” Lorna Jane* said.

According to South Africa’s annual crime figures “the number of sexual offences dropped by just 5% to 53, 617 between 2014-2015”, however researchers believe this figure reflects only a fraction of rape cases that occurred. This would then clearly mean many rape cases have occurred around the country but nothing has been done about it. Research released last year showed that that the processing of rape cases is often “inconsistent and riddled with problems”.

Few of the reported cases of sexual assault at Rhodes university actually translate into criminal charges.

“In the end, they declined to take my case up for prosecution,” Jane said.

It is this frustration with the system that has prompted students to publish the names of alleged rapists, and demand changes to policies at Rhodes.

But not everyone believes that publishing the list was a good idea.

Gender activist Lisa Vetten says that publishing the names of alleged rapists may further impede justice for survivors.

“The cases should have been escalated to university management and the naming of suspects on social media should have been the last option. If this hasn’t happened and you’re accusing people of rape, you’re opening yourself up to being sued,” Vetten said.

Similarly, gender activist Charlene Smith posted a statement on Facebook in which she condemned the move to publish names of alleged rapists.

“It destroys the presumption of innocent until proven guilty. It allows those who have personal grudges to destroy the lives of those named,” Smith said.

Vetten also says that the alleged perpetrators should have been contacted and informed of the consequences of the accusations. “You have to give people the opportunity to respond to an accusation,” she said. “If you name people but don’t tell them what they’re being accused of and have an opportunity to respond and engage, then it’s a problem.”

In the days since the list was released, a number of past and present Rhodes students have voiced their support for the publication of the list in the vacuum of justice for survivors.

Writing on Facebook, Mallory Perrett described how survivors are often shunted between the police and the university.

“If Rhodes won’t help, can we turn to the police who ask: were you drunk? What were you doing there? What were you wearing? How many people have you slept with? Are you sure you want to ruin this man’s life?” And certainly, the inefficacy of system which Rhodes has instituted to deal with cases of sexual violence at the university has now been exposed.

Vetten says the manner in which Rhodes has responded to incidents of sexual violence has left students with few options except to seek redress by taking extraordinary measures.

“Rhodes hasn’t responded well and some of this may be the university’s own doing. It’s problematic that there isn’t enough resources and support to deal with the matter,” she said.

But the situation at Rhodes is not new. And frustration among the university student community runs deep.

In an academic study published in 2007, titled “The Habitus of the Dominant: Addressing Rape and Sexual Assault at Rhodes University”,  it’s clear that there is a long history of the problem at the Grahamstown university.

According to the study, in 1991, the SRC Women’s Group produced a report on the growing extent of sexual harassment, claiming that over half the student population found campus unsafe at night, and 12% did not walk alone after dark.

“The Student Advisor and Assistant Dean of Students both confirmed that there were no official rape statistics and no central system to deal with rape. The survivor could go to the San, the student counselling service or to the Advisor, who admitted that Rhodes was not ‘doing enough about rape’,” the study says.

Twenty-five years later, the university has made some progress, Rhodes Vice Chancellor Dr Mabizela, speaking on 702, said. “We have set up a task team to look at all our processes and procedures in order to identify if there are any gaps so that we are able to address all of these issues.”

It’s clear a lot more needs to be done to facilitate the eradication of rape culture.

“When I did eventually find the policy for harassment and the one for sexual assault on the Rhodes website, I wasn’t sure that they were the correct ones because they had not been reviewed in a while,” Jane said. “For that reason, I think that the university needs to do better to make sure that everyone knows exactly how to report and what the current procedures are.”

For her, the first step in instituting change would be a change in attitude from authorities towards survivors.

“I think the people who handle these cases need to be way more sensitive about sexual assault and trauma. I understand that they have to follow the law, but from my own experience, I think they could take a much more sensitive approach: one which makes us as survivors feel like we are actually cared for and believed,” she said.

Academic staff agree that must be better training for those who handle cases of sexual assault.

“We need more, better-trained staff dealing with these cases and we need to come down hard on people who are propping up this broken system,” Kayla Roux, a lecturer in the journalism department said.

What is unclear is how similar the situation at Rhodes is to other campuses across the country.

“I don’t think sexual violence is more of a problem on Rhodes University campus than it is on other campuses, but our students seem to have gathered a lot of momentum and are not going to let university management ignore them anymore,” Roux says.

What is clear is that the scale of the problem of sexual violence at Rhodes demands deep introspection at all places of higher learning.

“There’s so little research, one doesn’t know the kind of experiences young women on campus are having,” Vetten said. “This situation has made me realise how the subject of sexual violence on campus is untouched.”

*Names have been changed.

Support for survivors at Rhodes University is available through counsellors at the Rhodes Counselling Centre at 046- 603-7070 or 082-803-0177. For full details on how to report rape at Rhodes, read this. 

Editors’ note: A journalist working with The Daily Vox was named on the Rhodes reference list. The journalist has since been placed on a leave of absence while we conduct an enquiry into the allegation. The Daily Vox is committed to principles of social justice. Inherent to the promotion of social justice is the rights of survivors of sexual violence to pursue justice. We support all calls to end sexual violence.

Featured image via @ActivateOnline on Twitter