A tense two-hour standoff between Grahamstown police and about 300 Rhodes University students, many of them bare-breasted, ended last night after university management told police to leave. Emotional students hugged each other and cried during the confrontation.
Many refused to move and lay on their backs in the road in defiance.
Police had threatened on several occasions to use force to disperse the students, who were protesting against rape at the institution and had formed a human barricade on the corner of Prince Alfred Road.
During the standoff, a red Audi forced its way through the barricade, nearly injuring a student, who leapt onto the bonnet to avoid being dragged under the vehicle.
The students, who had removed their tops, exposing bras or bare breasts, protested throughout the day and decided to form the barricade at about 4pm.
They chanted and wrote slogans on their bodies, undeterred by the rain and cool weather.
It was the third consecutive day of protests at the university following the anonymous posting of a “reference list” containing the names of 11 students accused of rape.
Police arrived at the scene shortly after 4pm, blocking roads and directing traffic away from the human barricade.
Some police officers were dressed in riot gear.
One warned the students to disperse, saying they were blocking a public road and committing public indecency by being topless. But the students would not budge. The standoff heated up as more police arrived and students raised their arms in solidarity, maintaining it was a peaceful protest.
Curious onlookers lined the streets, taking pictures, and motorists drove by slowly, hooting in support of the students.
Vice-chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela and Professor Innocent Msimbo eventually asked police to leave the scene.
Msimbo then addressed the students, telling them that the police had agreed to leave as long as the students stayed on Prince Alfred Road.
“There has been some misunderstanding as to what road is public, but Prince Alfred is not a public road,” Msimbo said.
“We agreed that a barrier would be constructed on the road.”
One student jeered and said they had protested peacefully on the same road last year during the #FeesMustFall protests and police had not threatened them. “We are here against rape,” she yelled. “As police, you cannot threaten students standing up against rape.” The police left the scene at about 6pm. Earlier, hundreds of students disrupted lectures at several departments at the university.
Others were disappointed by the university management’s handling of the protest.
Rhodes student and Gender Action Project leader Sian Ferguson said 22 students had told her since the start of the year that they had been raped or sexually assaulted.
“That is 22 this year alone and there has not been that many teaching weeks so far – basically just one term,” she said.
“Also, consider if 22 students have come forward how many more remain silent?”
The majority of the cases occurred at university residences on and off campus or at “digs”.
“The perpetrators are either fellow students, friends or boyfriends,” Ferguson said.
“The number of girls who have come forward is shocking, but also unsurprising. Rape is so prevalent here.”
Ferguson said she was a victim of sexual assault herself and had allegedly been abused by two of the students named on the “reference list”.
“When I saw the list I immediately knew what it was,” she said.
“Many of the students on the list are well known and rumours had been circulating for some time.”
She pursued disciplinary proceedings against her alleged perpetrators but could not prove that there was an intent to rape.
“This is one of the policies students want to see changed,” Ferguson said.
Gorata Chengeta, a Chapter 212 organiser and Gender Action Project member at the university, said the emergence of the list and the multi-university campaign against rape had brought tensions to the fore.
“Students are taking a stand against institutional policies because they believe their concerns are not being addressed,” she said.
Student Abongile James said they were protesting topless to indicate that no woman asked to be raped.
“Your body belongs to you, and only you,” she said.
“We are so disappointed in management because it is as if they do not care. All they are worried about is the reputation of the university.”
Another student, Asavela Matera, said: “This list confirms all our fears.
“Many of us thought only strangers rape, but these are people we know and trusted.”
Deputy vice-chancellor Peter Clayton said: “As management, we are not shocked by these allegations.
“It sounds as if it is only a problem here, but Rhodes is the same as any other place in South Africa, which has a serious sexual violence problem.
“We have had explicit campaigns for the past 11 years now to promote good behaviour in relationships and gender equity.
“One of them is the One in Nine campaign, which relates to only one in nine rapes being reported,” he said.
“A number of other universities even picked up on this, but this does not mean that we have been able to eradicate rape entirely.”
Clayton said management was willing to review its harassment office, which has two part-time officers assisting victims of rape and sexual violence.
“Through that mechanism, two rapes have been reported, but there are now allegations of 22 rapes,” he said.
Clayton said management had responded to the list of demands compiled by students.
“We believe we can be on the same side on almost all these points,” he said.
“However, one area we disagree on is that we cannot expel or punish any of the accused on the list without the appropriate processes.
“All are entitled to a fair process, just as the victims are entitled to a fair process.
“We have to act within the confines of the law. “We are not protecting these people. “Some students expect us to act on anonymous accusations by setting up a public stoning spectacle.”
Clayton said they had set up a task team to deal with the issue.
source: Herald Live