Wow. I take leave in the hills for a few days and everything goes crazy in my absence. I return to a university jittery in the aftermath of yet another upheaval on yet another issue – this time rape and sexual harassment. I’m picking up the echoes. Demos, barricades, interdict, closure. Some students and/or outsiders behaved badly as usual; the police behaved heavy-handedly as usual. The Vice Chancellor shoved down stairs; an arrested student having a panic attack in a police van; another hit in the chest with a rubber bullet. Letters in the press; sundry viewpoints aired on the university Confessions Facebook page. It’s so complex; no one has a complete view. Lawsuits threatened in every direction. Trauma layered on trauma. Some lecturers, especially male, declined this week to give lectures for fear of being invaded, interrogated and labelled the enemy unless they went out and toyi-toyi’d, too.
Indeed, any whiff of criticism of this wave of protest runs the risk of being simplistically characterised as support for rapists. A new orthodoxy; no subtlety allowed.
So let me be crystal clear on my own stance here. I condemn without reservation sexual harassment in all its forms. Rape, along with other kinds of sexual harassment, is a national, indeed, global scourge. There is no question that it ought to be eradicated, its patriarchal roots expunged, its perpetrators punished, and its victims protected and helped. There is no question that judicial systems the world over have failed signally to rectify the situation, and that decades of public critique have substantially failed to persuade sexual predators of the damage that they do, and to deter them.
What to do about it now, is of course the question. We are dealing with an ancient and many-headed hydra, pervasive in a multiplicity of forms, from international slavery networks to crass teasing at the nearest pub, across a vast range of social structures and individualised experiences. It follows that solutions will have to be equally multiple, tailored to local nuances and conditions. Globalised legislations and idealistic mantras, while necessary and already in place, can go only so far.
Local responses are already well-established. Annually, I am honoured to join a march or other event in support of women’s rights or in opposition to sexual harassment and inequalities. Raising awareness and sensitivities amongst men, and empowering women, through demonstrations, educative displays, media exchanges, lectures, support groups and so on, gets my total support. In principle, then, I applaud student initiatives to address the issue as it impacts upon them in the here and now.
All that said, it’s tricky. The university is a locus for both new freedoms for the young, and new disciplines. It is both an erotically charged space, and a venue for challenging the status quo. We have a communal responsibility to challenge the status quo, even as we try to maintain a certain stability and respectfulness. The recent paroxysm of rage has raised some troubling questions. Righteous anger has always been a necessary element in compelling change; and – as usefully outlined in Stacy Hardy’s article, “A Brief History of Student Protest”, in the latest edition of Chronic-Chimurenga – students have often been at the forefront of such changes. In this case, it seems to me, some the modes of anger and rhetoric have spilled over from last year’s protests, and have become a little misdirected.
Firstly, there has been intense debate about the event that sparked the upheaval: the anonymous posting of the euphemistically-titled “ReferenceList” of alleged sexual offenders. It’s controversial enough publicising neighbourhood lists of convicted paedophiles or rapists; this is doubly shaky stuff. Women I’ve spoken to, despite being strongly feminist or victims of abuse themselves, have termed it an unacceptable act of vigilantism. One writer claims that 96% of claims of sexual assault are well-founded and honest, implying that the ReferenceList must therefore be 96% accurate. This can’t by definition be shown, since that figure cannot include the huge number of claims that never get proved in court, let alone the many instances of withdrawn charges. Pontsho Pilane, who makes some good points in her recent Mail & Guardian comment, supports publishing the list, arguing that women have been left with no alternative. If there is “collateral damage” to the innocent, that seems acceptable – as long as it’s men. Hmm.
This view is closely connected with a second problematic aspect: equating the legally-binding ‘presumption of innocence until proven guilty’, which is written into national and constitutional law, with somehow deliberately “protecting the perpetrators”. That this seems to happen in practice doesn’t mean that presumption-of-innocence law is wrong. It’s partly a product of the fact that a) many victims are understandably reluctant to lay charges openly or immediately; b) it is in so many cases very hard to prove and prosecute the assault; and c) the burden of proof is automatically, regardless of the crime, on the charge-layer/victim.
I’ve experienced this tough situation in a minor key. Maybe twenty-five years ago I was stabbed and robbed on a staircase leading down into Joburg railway station. It was over in a minute of frenetic struggle; though I was bleeding, the first and only security guard I found was uninterested. The attackers were gone; there was no one to arrest or charge. Obliged to prove their guilt, I would likely not have been able to recognise them even if they’d been caught. The law could do nothing for me. So I patched myself up and walked away from it. Yet even now I still sometimes run over the scene in my head, wondering what I could have done differently, whether I’d been too naive, too slow, too weak.
I suppose I should have made a fuss and demanded that station security be enhanced. This, in one facet of the demonstrations, is what our students have demanded of university management. I don’t know how much practical and legal wiggle-room administrators have, since they cannot (as some seem to be demanding) act outside the parameters of national law. I do hope that the newly-formed task-team can at least make it more possible to humanely receive and pursue harassment cases (I understand a number are already under prosecution, but are strictly sub judice, for good reason). For victims, no strategy – silence, court, therapy – is ever going to be easy. But it will not be made easier if the anger is directed at the wrong people.
Of one thing I am fairly sure: the scourge will not be mitigated by drawing yet more unnecessary divisions – between students and management, or between students and lecturers. We can only do it together, over the long term, by increments, by every available channel and strategy.
Hence, for example, the study of literature is not irrelevant, even if it’s not happening spectacularly on the barricades. Once the spectacle of the street demo passes, as it must, the skills our lectures and studies develop remain vital: the deepening of empathetic imagination, better understandings of what drives human relations, the transcendence of damaging stereotypes and generalisations, sensitisation to one another’s needs, tolerance of different voices, the enhancement of self-confidence, the mental wherewithal to make more intelligent decisions in one’s daily life. Later in the year I will be presenting our first-years with Ursula le Guin’s fascinating science-fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. Sci-fi? Irrelevant! On the contrary. Le Guin’s novel is all about cross-cultural understanding, identity and otherness, truth and governance – and gender. Le Guin imagines a largely de-gendered physiology which makes rape impossible, and gender inequalities non-existent. It’s a thought-experiment: What kind of society would we have if that were the case?
We will get nowhere without such imagination, the power to envisage alternatives, and the hard-won maturity and wisdom to work together across all other perceived distinctions. Whatever we might achieve might feel a bit like the cap about be placed on the exploded Chernobyl nuclear reactor: a huge effort of international cooperation, thirty years late, so much damage in the interim, and hardly addressing the root causes of radiation itself – but an achievement nevertheless. That’s our job: to do what we can to take our sad song, and make it better.