Rape, male student leaders and an institutionalised system of protection

Illustration by Shaquille Barnes
Illustration by Shaquille Barnes

My colleague at the University of the Free State (UFS) has taken to bemoaning the state of what he describes as a sudden emerging phenomenon of abusive, predatory, rapist and sexist male student leaders at the UFS.

During conversations like these I often want to scream out of pure frustration. There is nothing new about this pattern of male student leader behaviour, particularly considering that our history as a nation is peppered with examples of male leaders who have vehemently advocated for the rights of all citizens whilst comfortably exploiting and violating the bodies of womxn—most notably black womxn.

As a student leader, my specific portfolio places me right at the core of gender based activism, and the connecting thread between the cases I have investigated so far, is that 9 times out of 10 the perpetrator is a notable and respected male student leader. Earlier this year and late last year, two cases of sexual assault and gender-based violence were reported to me with reputable male student leaders as the perpetrators. Unfortunately, confidentiality surrounding the cases was broken and in some circles speculation and conversation about the cases was aflame on campus.

At the forefront of these conversations though, the abuse itself was never discussed and sympathy was never extended towards the survivor. The only thread of conversation I ever heard associated with their infringements, was that it could not be true because; “he was not that type of person.”

This rationale lies at the very root of why abuse by male student leaders is so prevalent; the court of public opinion continuously fails to understand that rape and sexual harassment is not “inappropriate sex” nor does not happen because the perpetrator is mentally unhinged or socially inept. Rape, sexual assault and gender-based violence are acts provoked by power and the need to demonstrate this power.

Professor Pumla Gqola explains in her revolutionary body of work, Rape: A South African Nightmare (2015: 21) “Rape has survived as long as it has because it works to keep patriarchy intact. It communicates clearly who matters and who is disposable.”

Gqola then goes on to explain that in rape or sexual harassment cases, the survivor is only believed if her story and who she names as her perpetrator align with the scripts for rape/ sexual assault that society has been trained into viewing as valid. These scripts, because they have been drenched in the pool of myths that comprise rape culture, never allow for a powerful male figure, like a male student leader, to be cast as the perpetrator. As Gqola aptly puts it; “Because people continue to think about rape [and sexual harassment] as inappropriate sex, rather than as violence, powerful, popular men are not potential rapists because [the assumption is that] they have a large pool of willing, available, obligation-free sex.”

Our conceptualisation of gender, is that men who society deems as the epitome of their gender construct, do not need to force anyone to have sex with them. In the case of male student leaders, this assumption is accompanied by our framing of them as people who are without blemish because of the advocacy role they play within our institutional spaces.

This rationale is dangerous and the only point of its existence is to stifle legitimate claims of sexual assault, harassment and gender-based violence and to grant certain men with impunity from the consequences of their disregard for the livelihoods of others.

Both of the aforementioned cases were resolved internally through a mediation process but to look at the UFS now, it would appear as though the student leaders in question never had cases opened against them at all. They still continue to chair the same organisations, are still actively involved on boards of charity associations on campus and is even spearhead social transformation projects with the support of UFS resources. Bluntly put, their careers as leaders continue to flourish within the space.

This indicates to me that as an institution and a community, we still do not see the direct link between power and rape/sexual harassment.

The answer to curbing male student leader violence is glaringly obvious; obliterate the power this individual has by cutting him from the platforms and resources within the institution that imbue him with this power.

The sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual misconduct policy at the UFS was passed by the UFS Council in mid-2018, however its implementation has been an immense struggle for the institution. Section 5 of the policy clearly stipulates that the human resources (HR) department is the body that must facilitate understanding among staff members about the policy, rape culture and gender inequality. This is important because this then means that staff members who have a direct function in the enactment of the policy, like Campus Protection Services, must receive training via the HR department in order to carry out their role effectively according to the policy. Despite this, both HR and protection services confirm that no such training has taken place yet. This is highly disturbing.

My office submitted a letter of demands to the University Rectorate regarding this negligence on the part of HR, however the letter of demands has not even been responded to or acknowledged. From my perspective, this silence communicates disregard for the gravity of the situation.

Employees have not been adequately trained or educated enough to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the intimate relationship between sexual violence and power; and this means that the system will always protect the male student leader from his actions simply because the role players in the system remain shrouded in ignorance.

Poor policy implementation processes is not a situation that is unique to the UFS. An anthology entitled Studying While Black (Swartz et al, 2018) noted a study done across institutions in South Africa that reveals that policy implementation, most particularly with respect to gender-based concerns, does not translate well into practice and that many policies are not being enforced. It is far more damaging to allow policies to be passed without being accompanied by clear plans for their implementation, than it is to have drafted and passed the policy in the first place.