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My Turn: In South Africa, rape crisis reaches boiling point on campus

  • Protesters and police come face to face at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, on April 17. Samuel Aviles / For the Monitor

  • Students protesting rape culture are detained by police at Rhodes University. Samuel Aviles / For the Monitor

  • Police arrest a student protester at Rhodes University, South Africa, on April 20. Samuel Aviles / For the Monitor

  • Protesters grab onto, and move back their barricade so that the police do not take it down at Rhodes University, in Grahamstown, South Africa, on April 20. Samuel Aviles

  • Armed with shotguns with rubber bullets, tear gas and mace, police confront protesting students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, on April 20. Samuel Aviles / For the Monitor

  • Two officers arrest a student protester at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, on April 20. Samuel Aviles

  • Students sing songs and dance to protest rape culture at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, on April 20. Sam van Etten

For the Monitor
Published: 5/22/2016 12:20:36 AM

Those who run the study abroad program at Rhodes University in South Africa will tell you all about the school’s excellent journalism program, the wonderful people you will meet and the beauty of the landscape.

What they might not mention is that South Africa has a serious sexual assault problem.

There are roughly 147 cases of rape reported every day in South Africa, but the majority go unreported.

On Sunday, April 17, frustration exploded into protest at Rhodes. Students on the Grahamstown campus raged against a culture of patriarchy and sexual assault that exists not only at universities such as Rhodes but throughout South Africa.

As a resident of a small New Hampshire town who is studying at Rhodes, I can honestly say I have never experienced anything like these protests.

 The tension was heightened when a list of 11 alleged rapists who had received no punishment from the university was posted anonymously on Facebook.

The list quickly began trending on Twitter, and it did not take long for students to begin protesting outside of residences where the accused live. The protesters called for them to come out and face judgment.

My residence was on the list, and when protesters broke in and began screaming and chasing people, I had no idea what to do. I eventually settled on the option of hiding in a friend’s room.

The next day protesters abandoned the hunt for alleged rapists and instead began shutting down classes and barricading roads to raise awareness about the problem.

Tensions with university management grew considerably during this period and reached a boiling point when Vice Chancellor Sizwe Mabizela was caught on video attempting to push a protester off a bucket she was sitting on.

On Wednesday, protesters were met by the Grahamstown police, who were armed with guns and tear gas. Officers decided to shut down the protest because of the protesters’ presence on public roads.

The confrontation quickly escalated, and before long the police were firing blanks, rubber bullets and tear gas at protesting students. Five students were arrested, one of whom had a panic attack in the police van and received no medical assistance.

The sounds of screaming and gunshots were terrifying.

After the clash with police, many university staff members joined the protests, providing a jolt of much-needed positivity and guidance to a furious student body.

Unfortunately, the university also issued an interdict, which allowed police to come on campus and arrest protesters at will. Despite this, protests continued for the next two days, with students singing, marching and peacefully raising awareness about the issues.

I participated as best I could, bearing in mind that I risked deportation if arrested.

At the end of the week, Dr. Mabizela and Rhodes management met to address student demands and larger concerns about the way management had handled the events of the previous week.

While the acknowledgement that Rhodes must address its rape culture and arrest the guilty was encouraging, the lack of action taken by management was, again, disappointing.

Students were informed that the interdict would not be lifted despite a lack of violence on the part of the students, and management was unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for the actions of two prominent professors who stood behind police while students were fired upon, gassed and arrested, seemingly without just cause.

Despite poor support from management and an extreme show of force by police, protesters have continued the fight.

It’s become almost impossible to have a conversation at Rhodes that doesn’t eventually turn to the problem of sexual assault, which means the level of awareness is rising.

Real change is in the air in South Africa. As a small-town kid from Warner, I feel blessed to be here.

(Sam van Etten of Warner is a student at Hobart College in New York. He is studying abroad at Rhodes University in South Africa.)


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