Clad in black and purple, students and staff at Wits University joined the country in speaking up about gender-based violence (GBV) and femicide on Monday morning. It’s been a week since the news broke that a post office worker had raped and murdered 19-year-old University of Cape Town (UCT) student Uyinene Mrwetyana. Since then, thousands have expressed their anger and frustration in mass protest action. By FATIMA MOOSA and SHAAZIA EBRAHIM.
The day-long event included a sit-in, handing over of a memorandum, a march around the campus, ending off with a prayer. The protest was hosted in collaboration with a number of organisations including a second year collective of students called the Women’s Safe Space, Black Womxn Caucus, Amnesty International, and the Wits Student Representative Council (SRC). All classes were cancelled at the university from 12pm to allow for students to join the sit-in.
Lelethu Mbtokoma, a representative from the Women’s Safe Spaces collective, said the group began as a safe walking buddy system. They organised people to walk in groups around campus for safety reasons. But Mbtokoma said they then realised the issue was bigger.
“We then came together as a group on Telegram and it was discussed to have a sit-in. More people were open to the sit-in especially with the dangers of having other forms of protests and the resilience to other forms,” said Mbtokoma. The Women’s safe spaces want the university to make the space safer for female students.
Alwande Khumalo, Amnesty International Wit’s head of the womxn’s subcommittee, said the sit-in was organised to “say we have zero tolerance for sexual and gender-based violence.” Khumalo said Amnesty International is working on research around gender-based violence which is revealing shocking statistics.
“Whenever you do a GBV campaign it usually manifests in the same way: it happens in Women’s Month and then it just dies out. But the violations don’t die out,” Khumalo said.
Speaking to The Daily Vox, SRC legal, constitutional and policy officer Faatima Laher said as the SRC they “tried to combine all the movements into one so that the whole university could come together on one day for one purpose.”
The SRC will be handing over a list of demands to the university. These include increased security visibility around campus and at bus stops around campus. Other demands include an increase in rape kits on campus, self-defence equipment and free self-defence classes for female students.
They are also calling for male students who are exposed as perpetrators to be removed from campus, and to be expelled with immediate effect.
Last week, Wits also hosted a vigil to mourn the passing of Mrwetyana and the status of women around the country.
“It’s becoming very apparent that the current socio-political, environmental conditions in this country are very skewed,” Black Womxn Caucus leader Keitumetse Fatimata Moutloatse said in an interview with The Daily Vox. “The contradictions have matured. The increasing inequality in this country is finding expression and unfortunately the first expression is being found on our bodies. This is seen through the high rate of gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa,” Moutloatse, who is also an intern at the Wits Gender Equity Office, said.
Moutloatse is calling for a feminist movement that addresses the cause of GBV and not the symptoms, representing marginalised groups including women, children, differently-abled people, migrants, sex workers, members of the LGBTQIA community.
“I acknowledge the effort of students, of mass protest action rolling out throughout the country but are we going to wait for another moment to organise ourselves? Our political organisations have failed us in really addressing the needs of marginalised groups,” she said.