No accountability implies that universities respond to sexual violence in a piecemeal way, says the writer. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/Independent Media
No accountability implies that universities respond to sexual violence in a piecemeal way, says the writer. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/Independent Media

Institutions of higher learnings’ response to sexual violence appears to protect the institution and annihilate victims, writes Rakgadi Mohlahlane.

The report on how the University of Johannesburg (UJ) allowed a sex predator to get away with dehumanising and terrorising a fellow employee for several years is exactly why sexual violence is embedded in universities, once again highlighting a lack of accountability and unwillingness to dismantle the big boys’ club of violence. Sadly, it is also the kind of impunity that we, as a society, have come to accept as normal.

If one were to remove the names of higher learning institutions from responses to sexual violence under their watch, one would be forgiven for thinking the responses were written by one person instructed to first defend the institution and then annihilate the victims.

They have placed women in the hot seats of sexual harassment officers. The positions often lack financial and human resources – at a university there is one sexual harassment officer while sport is resourced with 12 administrators.

The lack of accountability implies that university managers respond to sexual violence in a piecemeal reactionary fashion. Under such conditions, it becomes impossible to see rape survivors as human beings who deserve justice. On the other hand perpetrators are guaranteed support, for instance: a University of Johannesburg manager accused of sexually harassing a colleague for years was allowed to resign a day before an internal inquiry into his conduct. When asked why UJ had not instituted legal proceedings when he resigned, spokesperson Kaamini Reddy said: “If an employee resigns, it ends the contract which grants UJ the power to take action against the person.” UJ made a choice to let the sex predator off the hook.

The university said: “We want to reiterate the need for all stakeholders within the university to have a shared responsibility to commit to and uphold the values of the university and comply with policies to ensure that the rights of individuals and the reputation of the university is protected.” The response is a warning defending the reputation of a system represented by vice-chancellors (VCs) and the council.

The Higher Education Transformation Network (HETN) has this to say about VCs and the councils: “Vice-chancellors and councils are not above the law. We reject the self-proclaimed mandate of higher education vice-chancellors in arrogating (to) themselves a godly role of arbitrarily managing universities as their private fiefdom contrary to national imperatives. We have highlighted repeated examples of certain vice-chancellors (including a former chairperson of HESA/ Universities SA) who tolerated racist and sexist workplace practices”.

These sharp words were in relation to a sexual harassment case of Professor Thidziambe Phendla against University of Venda VC professor Peter Mbati. The university management cast doubt on the complainant’s case, despite evidence from the National Prosecuting Authority, a Deloitte and Touche internal audit and the high court in Joburg that the charges of financial misconduct against the complainant were trumped up. The perpetrator used university resources to defend himself. Phendla is unemployed four years later.

Similarly, the University of Johannesburg urges people not to take matters outside the official realm. This is obfuscation in defence of patriarchal privilege – the very privilege that has kept rape culture intact on campuses, which the #FeesMustFall movement is challenging.

As observed last year when Wits University vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib took umbrage with what he called political activists. These activists were calling out Wits management for their sloppiness in responding to a rape case. It has since emerged that one of Habib’s senior managers has been embroiled in a sexual harassment case going back many years. The professor was fired recently.

Predatory sexual culture is woven into major university activities such as orientation programmes, residence committees, culture and sport. Such activities are linked to serious financial interests that are underpinned by class, race and gender.

One university has a famous line it uses use at orientation week: “Welcome to our university, your parents will be happy to know that you will find yourself a good husband.” An affirming environment, including sex messaging, is presented as a domain for heteronormative identifying persons. LGBTQ-identifying students, are often ignored, excluded and/or ridiculed whenever there is a claim to their rights.

Residence placement and culture is an exercise in elitism – family name and length of association with the institution provides social capital. An example of residence training at violence: All first-year students go on mass dates between men and women’s houses. Most of the men’s houses teach chivalry with internal songs describing raping women. In one residence, it was compulsory to learn how to be a “trouvrou”, which comes with being timid and pandering to men for the ultimate marriage prize. In another, male students would get involved in a beer run, along the way they would urinate at motorists from the top of the highway, then, as they reached campus, they would chase after drum majorettes (all women). Part of male fun is to use women’s bodies as they would toys. Visiting hours are problematic: Women usually get five hours a week for men to visit while men can have women visitors anytime, except between 1am and 7am.

Universities are not open to discussions about rape. It is often presented as a question of a few bad apples. Instead, the institution’s reputation takes priority.

The #FeesMustFall activists, mainly black women, are taking on sexual violence as part of the struggle for transformation and the decoloniality project. Officially sanctioned campaigns against rape were supported by Rhodes University. However, as soon as the #FeesMustFall movement came up with grassroots campaigns (after many failed efforts of engaging management), management took decisive action: police were called in and a student was physically handled by Dr Sizwe Mabizela. The subliminal script: Our endowment and legacy matter the most.

How then can we expect to turn the tide in the culture of sexual violence, given its embeddedness? Are we not expecting too much of the poor executives, some of whom grew up in the institutions, moved up the ranks and became powerful men, fearful they might have to revisit their conduct from student days – conduct that they never thought was wrong in the first place?


Written by Opinion IOL