UKZN fails in its concern for survivors of rape and sexual assault

    Image credit: UKZN Fees Must Fall

    Writing in their personal capacities, academic staff at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus, Pumelela Nqelenga, Mari H Engh and Federico Settler, say the university’s failure to condemn sexual violence further entrenches rape culture. 

    What has been astounding in the last few days is the fact in the midst of concerns about violence against black students on and around university campuses, such as UKZN, and the #FeesMustFall movement – we have witnessed expressions of outrage from young black women sharing their experiences of police intimidation and brutality, after one UKZN student reported that she had been raped by a police officer.
    However, in the last 24 hours we have also seen the public debate about this incident shift from a focus on police brutality and intimidation, to speculation and discussion about whether it was in fact rape or “mere” sexual assault.

    This is indicative of a culture of discrediting women as victims and survivors of violence, a culture that is not able to recognise and confront the pervasiveness of rape culture and gender-based violence on, and beyond, university campuses. This shift in focus is possible precisely because the university, personified in this case by UKZN’s director of Corporate Relations Lesiba Seshoka, shows more concern with protecting itself from liability – than with the well-being and care for one of its own students. Seshoka’s repeated statements that “if anyone moves out of campus or goes to some place and gets harassed there – it’s not for the University to be commenting on things,”  than with the protection and well-being of one of its students. At no time during the last few days has there any public statement from the university condemning sexual violence, whether rape or sexual assault – despite numerous reports and calls for intervention.

    This deafening silence entrenches rape culture and dismisses the gravity of the incident and the lasting impact of sexual violence on women.

    In Pumla Gqola’s recent book Rape, A South African Nightmare, she draws on Jane Bennet’s work to say that “the believability of a rape survivor depends on how closely her rape resembles her society’s idea of what a rape looks like, who rapes, who can be raped, when and how”. Seshoka’s insistence on distinguishing between rape and sexual assault, and on whether “it” took place on campus or off campus, illustrates clearly how questions of believability, credibility and proximity take precedence over concerns for women students, and their safety and bodily integrity. What this masks is that a traumatic event took place, that it affected a female student from UKZN, and that the university has a responsibility regardless of proximity and the context of protest. The responsibility of the university is to maintain a safe, nurturing and critical learning environment.

    The preoccupation with the precise wording of the charges obscures the fact that there is little denying that what took place at UKZN Pietermaritzburg on Monday 5th September was a violation. Perpetrated by a police officer, who at the time was supposedly enforcing the university interdict. How the university has responded in public statements and interviews, only shows how in all of this the student herself has been made to disappear and her bodily integrity and trauma has become irrelevant. We don’t want to deal with her, her tears and her trauma, we become obsessed with technicalities, liabilities and credibility – all the while further entrenching the alienation of black women in our society.


    Pumelela Nqelenga is a performer and drama lecturer at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg Campus.

    Mari H Engh is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the School of Applied Human Sciences at UKZN, with a specialisation in gender, sport and migration.

    Federico Settler is a Lecturer the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, UKZN, with expertise in Sociology of Religion and black studies