Dangerous narratives: How Rhodes’ response to rape culture harms sexual assault victims

By Zodwa Jane*

Content note: this commentary discusses rape culture, sexual violence and injustice.

Last week, the hashtag #RhodesWar exploded onto social media after two student activists at Rhodes University accused the institution of unfairly expelling them (and others) for participating in the #RUReferenceList protests. Rhodes’ response is that these students were not expelled for protesting, but rather for kidnapping, assault, defamation and others. Despite the fact that hundreds of students were involved in these spontaneous protests (and without even giving one of the students an opportunity to defend herself), Rhodes is confident that the students they’ve expelled were instigators of criminal activity. Having witnessed these protests last year, I have keenly followed #RhodesWar and I feel Rhodes has misrepresented the protests as well as the extent to which they have addressed rape culture.

One matter that has featured as a significant part of the university’s defense, is that since the protests, Rhodes has taken firm action against students found guilty of rape. The university makes this point as rebuttal to the activists’ claim that, on top of criminalizing them for protesting, Rhodes has done little to transform rape culture on campus. To me, the comparison between the sanctions received by rapists and that received by gender activists actually distracts us from the injustice of Rhodes prosecuting individual activists for collective action, in the first instance. Secondly, it distracts us from the troubling fact that Rhodes is expelling students who fought for the changes that the institution now takes credit for. Further, the focus on expulsions (whilst important) takes away attention from the claims that Rhodes has done little to substantively combat rape culture.

I do not dispute that Rhodes has excluded students they found guilty of rape. However, I find it disingenuous for Rhodes to claim that doing so means they have taken adequate steps to address rape culture. In our view and in many of our experiences, the university’s official responses, not only exaggerate the changes they’ve made, but also perpetuate harmful beliefs about rape.

A key example of this is an article published by Rhodes in September, in which the university spokesperson interviews Bettie (not her real name), a complainant who reported her rape to the university and had her perpetrator expelled. Before I explore how this article is harmful, I want to make the following explicit: I believe Bettie. What happened was not her fault. As she heals, I hope she remembers that. I’m relieved and happy that her perpetrator has been expelled. This analysis is not a critique of Bettie, Rather, it is a critique of the harmful framework Rhodes continues to tout as progressive, this time using Bettie’s experiences to delegitimize other survivors.

In the wake of #RhodesWar, at least two women have publicly disclosed that they have been raped at Rhodes this year. Unlike Bettie, who tells a narrative of receiving “massive” support from Rhodes during her ordeal, these women expressed having lost hope in regard to the cases they opened with the university. In light of these revelations, Rhodes’ single-story of the perpetrators they have expelled and the victims they have successfully supported, is a slap in the face to those survivors whose experiences differ from Bettie’s. To me, this is consistent with a problem which led to the #RUReferenceList protests in the first place: Rhodes’ failure (or perhaps, refusal) to account fully for where they have failed victims of sexual violence.

In the interview with Bettie, the author writes that, before he met her, he had never “come face to face with a rape survivor before”. This is surprising. At a university that made headlines for an anti-rape protest in 2016 and in a country believed to have the highest rates of sexual violence in the world, the writer has never encountered a rape survivor? Not one? He continues, “The woman in front of me could not possibly have been violated in this way. She is far too strong, too warm, and too human.” Plainly, this is insulting to victims/survivors. What does this statement mean for those of us who are less warm? What does it mean for those of us whose race, gender or sexuality has historically excluded us from the category of being “human”? The way Bettie’s strength is framed here harms those of us who never reported; the language used suggests that we’re not human enough.

Bettie’s strength is important to acknowledge because it takes a lot of courage to pursue a disciplinary hearing against someone who violated you.  The writer describes her as a “positive human being clearly made of sterner stuff”, noting that she relays her experience without crying. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with how Bettie responds to her ordeal or tells her story, her strength is once again used against the rest of us. Throughout the article, it becomes clear that we should aspire to be more like her. The writer frames her as the survivor who did all the right things: suggesting that she got justice because she reported. It begs the question: if Bettie had expressed her strength through a protest instead of by following procedure, what kind of article would have been written about her? What articles would Rhodes write about those of us who are suicidal, bitter, unstable and hysterical victims/survivors? How would they write about those of us who did not see any reason to trust the reporting system? Our stories matter too. A small piece of justice for us – since we’ve watched our perpetrators graduate and flourish – looks like Rhodes admitting that they failed us. But that, perhaps, is an inconvenient narrative for their PR strategy.

The article ends with a disclaimer, part of which reads: “The interview was conducted at [Bettie’s] request to raise awareness and to inspire women to stand up to gender-based violence and to report abuse”. On par with other press statements by Rhodes, there is strong emphasis on encouraging victims to report their cases. This is reflective of a stubborn insistence by the institution that reporting cases is the best way of dealing with rape culture. When the Chapter 212 campaign criticized Rhodes’ channels for reporting rape in 2016, the university responded first by taking down the posters, and then by encouraging victims of assault to report their cases through the very same channels being critiqued. Whilst Rhodes continues to write glowing statements about all the action they’ve supposedly taken, I think those of us who watched Campus Protection remove those posters (twice) deserve the right to have trust issues here. We should be forgiven if we cannot be inspired to report.

It could be argued that if we don’t report our cases, nothing can be done. However, this is a simplistic position, which doesn’t take into account the reality and harm of secondary victimization. The problem with insisting we report, is that, if we don’t, our grievances with how Rhodes handles rape culture are blamed on our failures to follow procedure. Secondly, the incessant pressure to report fails to recognize that broadly, reporting is not an option for some of us. Often, we’re too traumatized to ever tell anyone, let alone to report to the authorities. Those of us who are queer might be afraid of further victimization and homophobia in our quests for justice.  We are afraid that we will not be believed.

Our fears are valid. Given Rhodes’ expulsion of the anti-rape activists, I do not blame students who are not confident that the university will be there to protect them if they are assaulted, especially if they’re Black women (like most of the excluded students). There are many ways Rhodes can change their institutional culture to gain their students’ trust. Continuing to criminalize activists, some of whom are survivors of assault themselves, is not one of them.  Even in instances Rhodes have (seemingly?) done the right thing, as in Bettie’s case, there is still much to be desired in the way the university has engaged with rape culture during and beyond #RUReferenceList. No number of well-worded press statements can erase our memory or our pain.

*Zodwa Jane (name changed) is a feminist activist. When she is not writing, she spends her time trying to reclaim the peace her experiences at Rhodes University stole from her. Check out the other post we have on #RhodesWar here

*leave a comment on the post, you can write it under a different name and your email will not be published.*

To submit to HOLAA! email submissions@holaafrica.org

 

 

avatar
Telling your own story is important. To submit to HOLAA and have your voice on the site email submissions@holaafrica.org. To reach out to us and get more information please email info@holaafrica.org. This is the stuff produced within the HOLAA! camp.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Loading...