Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault, sexual violence

Arrival at university marked the beginning of a new and exciting phase in my life. Not only was I exposed to the world of ideas, but having grown up in rural Eastern Cape, until university, I had only fleeting encounters with non-Xhosa-speaking Africans. Here we were, living side by side, learning not only to exist but to be a community.

Universities are a microcosm of society. They reflect what is good and what is bad about society. The most stark example of this is sexism, sexual harassment and rape. Even the way rape is handled by university authorities and the larger university community, including students, is reflected in what happens in our communities, homes and the world.

Rape is the only crime in which all the evidence is in and with the victim. Collection of that evidence and building a case of rape is intrusive and often opens the victim/survivor to multiple layers of violation. The person who has been violated often goes through these even before they have been able to connect with their pain and internalise the trauma.

Legal scholars have debated these aspects for many decades. There is growing knowledge that the law itself entails violence. There are no immediate answers to the violence of law.  But at least scholars – such as the late Yale law professor Robert Cover – have spent decades interrogating ‘violence and the word’ and focusing on what ‘legal interpretation’ signifies. This is fundamentally important in our response to rape and thinking through ways in which we understand and therefore address problems.

Another important area of engagement is looking at how police and the law deal with victims/survivors of sexual violence. In her book Rape Unresolved: Policing sexual offences in South Africa (UCT Press), professor Dee Smythe looks at how police handle sexual offences in South Africa. Such works need to be used as texts to assist in disentangling patriarchal collusion and searching for solutions. Universities are, after all, places of intellectual stimulation and promotion of original thinking.

It is critical that universities look at practices that normalise and perpetuate sexual violence. In almost every South African university, the period of orientation – the exciting time when young people are introduced to the freedom that lies ahead – is also the time when young women are vulnerable. Formal orientation week is accompanied by informal initiation practices during which young men and women undergo rites of passage. A closer study of these practices reveals deeply entrenched ‘house cultures’ of abuse, violence and sexism. These practices bully young men and women into internalising or accepting forms of masculinity that violate others. At the centre of these definitions of manhood are practices that encourage expression of ‘house pride’, manifested in ‘conquering’ young women and, yes, raping them. Of course, it is not called that, for no one speaks the word rape, nor mentions how this conquest happened. It is assumed that the victim/survivor would have been forced into it. If she, too, wanted to have this sexual encounter, the young men will not mention it because negotiating and agreeing to sex is, after all, part of the young woman’s agency. This model of masculinity is also about destroying women’s agency. An intervention that advances different models of masculinity and bans these abusive practices is critical for universities.

It is time to act as citizens. We must journey with our young and universities in search of solutions, and help reclaim universities as places of freedom, coming of age and intellectual growth. We must teach and learn ways in which we can be in solidarity with victims/survivors without exposing them to further danger and humiliation. Most importantly, our actions must be alive to their vulnerability.

Nomboniso Gasa is a researcher and analyst on land, gender, politics and cultural issues.

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