Two years after the fight against patriarchy, misogyny, and rape culture at universities made headlines, the battle still rages on. Those survivors at Rhodes University who would no longer be silenced were expelled, while others are still forced to share the same space as their perpetrators. SIYAMTHANDA NYULU, a student activist who was part of the RU Reference List protest reflects on that day and how far the university has come in tackling its problem with rape.
TW: mentions of sexual assault
I will never forget that day. The 18th of April 2016: the most triggering day for me at Rhodes University. On that morning as I was walking past High Street going to campus, a student came to me said “It’s lit on campus leadership. Where were you last night? There is going to be a shutdown, but students are at Drostdy Lawns for a mass meeting.” When I arrived on campus I saw students wearing rape survivor T-shirts and T-shirts in solidarity with rape survivors gathering and drafting demands which would be sent to the vice chancellor and senior management. I then went to comrade Thembani Onceya who told me that a list of alleged rapists had been published on social media and students are protesting against rape culture on campus.
I heard the word rape and thought about the day I was sexually assaulted and almost got killed. For a moment thoughts of me crying, having difficulty screaming for help, bleeding with a man I barely know on top of me choking me and forcing himself on top of me ran through my mind. In that moment I wasn’t an activist or the radical black women I was known to be on campus. In that moment I was a broken victim of sexual assault who couldn’t be strong and fight. I also thought about a friend of mine who told me she was raped at Calata House and was considering de-registering because she can’t handle seeing her perpetrator everyday on campus. Tears went down my face because I knew that most of the women gathered at Drostdy Lawns are people who, just like me, know the pain of sexual assault and have still not found justice.
Instead of senior management taking the RU Reference List demands into consideration and working towards implementing them, they chose to criminalise students by interdicting them and calling the police which led to students being shot and arrested.
In the week of the shutdown two female students I know de-registered at Rhodes. I also wanted to de-register. The week after the protest I had an anxiety attack inside the main library and needed to go home and never go back to Rhodes. Unfortunately because I’m considered the breadwinner at home I had to go back. I had to gather all the strength I had left in me, heal, and finish the academic year. After writing my May/June exams I was diagnosed with depression and was admitted for three weeks at a psychiatric hospital in Cape Town. I failed one of my majors because after RU Reference List life at varsity was never the same. I sacrificed my mental health, physical health, and academic performance. Two years later, even though sacrifices were made, nothing has changed.
Instead of the university heeding the call to eradicate rape culture and protect students, they have expelled activists who have played an active role in fighting rape culture and sexual violence at the university. As a result, Rhodes University has become a playground for rapists with perpetrators graduating and roaming around campus freely without accounting for their actions.
Two years ago women at Rhodes University started a national dialogue highlighting a broader societal issue affecting South African institutions of higher education and learning. Rape culture is not an issue affecting students at Rhodes only but rather it’s a global one. For example, in 2015 there was Rape at Azania House at the University of Cape Town. Last year a student was sexually assaulted inside a computer lab at Nelson Mandela University. We’ve seen women at Wits University confront patriarchy, misogyny, and rape culture on their campus with the 1sjambok1rapist movement. There are many other university students dealing with the scourge of rape culture which the broader public don’t know about because mainstream media have not given them a platform. Two years later and Rhodes University has fed into society’s narrative of rape culture which aims to silence victims.
Two years later and Rhodes University is still not working towards transformation. If they were they would bring back all the #RhodesWar excluded students, implement the sexual violence task team recommendations, and find a way of reconciling with students who de-registered in 2016 and couldn’t complete their degrees because of trauma endured during RU Reference List.
Siyamthanda Nyulu is a student activist at Rhodes University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.