It was just over a week before the elections that I heard about the case of female Stellenbosch students who had staged a peaceful protest during a Wordfees event in March 2016.

Their protest highlighted the fact that sexual violence is forgotten by institutions and taken much less seriously than any other form of discrimination and violence. These women stood up to raise awareness about violence against women, and in July 2016 they were charged with misconduct by the university. 

Charged with misconduct for protesting sexual violence

The reason that they staged the protest in the first place was to voice their dismay at the fact that members of another organisation, namely Afriforum, had sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, and victim-blamed women who had attended an event on Stellenbosch campus the day before. Despite making the university aware of the physical and verbal violence they endured, other members of Afriforum were still able to run for student council. 

It wasn’t clear to the victims of this violence that the university had taken any action against the perpetrators. The message this sent to the victims of abuse is that sexual harassment, sexual violence, and violent speech are fine, but a short protest highlighting endemic and systemic violence is not. 

This didn’t make sense to me.

I requested comment from Stellenbosch University on this matter, and on the reason for the extremely long delays between the protest and the charges. It didn’t make sense to me that four months had passed, and suddenly this became an issue of misconduct. 

Did it not seem unfair to them, I wondered why those who abuse are not considered to have brought the university’s name into disrepute, whereas those who spoke out against the injustice did? 

Stellenbosch’s communications officer, Martin Viljoen, prepared a full statement in response to my questions. This appears below:

University's statement

"Rooiplein and Woordfees incidents on 3 and 4 March and thereafter Stellenbosch University (SU) condemns any form of sexual harassment or violence in the strongest possible terms and will not hesitate to act against staff and students who make themselves guilty in this regard. The University’s particular point of view has been made clear in various media releases, in communiqués to staff and students and at various forums.

Apart from Management clearly speaking out on this matter – among others calling on men to understand that respect for women excludes verbal abuse, sexual harassment, inappropriate jokes and catcalling – it has also initiated substantial measures to address these issues. These include instituting a Task Team on Rape Culture earlier this year. A website dedicated to providing information on rape culture, has been developed, while SU has also engaged activist groups and has worked collaboratively around shared outcomes and presenting feedback sessions for staff and students to give input on this important issue. 

Over the last few days, Management took note of requests, including from the Student Representative Council, calling for the suspension of disciplinary proceedings against students who were involved in disrupting a Woordfees event earlier this year. The students took part in a protest action against sexual abuse following events and allegations of sexual harassment during protests on the Rooiplein the day before.

Although the cause of a particular protest action cannot justify misbehaviour during protest action or the infringement of the rights of others, the University has taken note of representations that some of those protesting during the Woordfees event were also the alleged victims of sexual harassment during the protest events on the Rooiplein the previous day. The decision was therefore taken to suspend the Woordfees related disciplinary proceedings, pending finalisation of the investigation and report into the events on the Rooiplein. Formal notices will be served as soon as possible.

The investigation into events on the Rooiplein followed a complaint that was lodged with the University’s Equality Unit. A thorough investigation has nearly been completed. The process was delayed as a result of the unwillingness of some witnesses to participate in the investigation while the June exams and recess also delayed meetings and other actions.

The University acknowledges the right of staff and students to participate in peaceful protest, provided that administrative, academic and other institutional activities are not disrupted; that actions do not lead to the endangering of the safety of staff and students, or damage to university property; and that the rights of students to study or attend classes are not infringed upon.

It should also be stressed that the University did not charge the students for taking part in protest action. The student disciplinary charges stems from their alleged involvement in disrupting a university event, to such an extent that it had to be called off. The students have been offered the opportunity to respond to charges prior to a final decision to proceed being taken. However, as stated, these proceedings have been temporarily suspended.

The University has an obligation to deal with matters relating to alleged misconduct and each incident is dealt with on its own merit. Should the report by the panel investigating the Rooiplein event come to the conclusion that SU students were involved in breaches of university rules, including sexual misconduct or harassment, the University will not hesitate to act against alleged perpetrators. It must be noted that disciplinary action by SU is only taken against SU students and/or staff for evident breach of SU policy, rules and regulations. In all cases proper investigations and due process are essential.

Sexual violence survivors never forget

The University also noted that it had established a special task team and website dedicated to ending rape culture, and to raising awareness on the matter amongst its students. 

A few days ago I sat watching the #RememberKhwezi protest with hope in my heart. Here were four brave women who stood up for what they believed in. They reminded the nation that whilst sexual abusers and rapists might forget what they’ve done, or the justice system might forget a case, the survivors of sexual violence and those who support them do not get to forget. And they shouldn’t. 

The burden of memory and pain for sexual violence in South Africa should not fall on the shoulders of survivors alone. A protest like this can really only be called a ‘disruption’ in that it disrupts the casual acceptance of violence against women, and our ability to go on with our lives as though everything is fine. For many survivors, for many women, these two protests are not disruptions. They are necessary. They are the voices we should celebrate, not punish.