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South African Universities Need A Standard On Sexual Assault

Universities are traditionally synonymous with the production of knowledge for the collective good of society, but when university campuses become raping grounds or a haven for vandals, they cease to be repositories of knowledge and automatically become purgatorial institutions that are emotionally stunted.

It is notable that when sin began, retribution set in; but when society is devoid of retribution for a cardinal sin such as rape, the victim is inevitably diminished beyond redemption. The Bible records that when Dinah (Jacob’s daughter) was raped by a Canaanite named Hamor, her brothers avenged their sister’s defilement by killing every male in that community. Tragedies and disaster of this nature teach valuable lessons, though they may not always have good students.

One does not need a magnifying glass to decipher what led to the Rhodes University student to commit suicide after she was sexually assaulted by her fellow student. The poor soul was pushed to the limit when her patience was exhausted due to accumulated depression and the lack of procedural justice on the part of university authorities. This is a warning puff of smoke to university authorities that the fire of rape victimisation has been lit, which fire will prove impossible to extinguish. By taking her own life; it was the last straw to break the camel’s back; she had to do it out of heartfelt lack of alternatives.

Rape at our universities has become an acute social problem that warrants the undivided attention of the entire university community and the anti-rape message should be spread to each and every nook and cranny of our society like an untamed wild fire. If this situation goes unbridled; more rape victims will commit suicide thanks to the accumulated depression and the feeling of being unwanted.

The Oxford dictionary defines a university as “an institution at the highest level of education where you can study for a degree or to do research.” Simply put, a university is a place in which declarative knowledge is translated into procedural knowledge.

It is notable that our universities have been turned into centres of violence where students take their anger on the university property at a whim. Hooliganism and vandalism are antitheses of what a definition of university is.  When university students use brawn instead of their brains to tackle their problems we should all recall the words of Allan Paton’s character in the story titled “The Waste land” who poignantly said “People arise the world is dead!” Call the roll of university challenges: rape, murder and arson.

This year a female student at Mangosuthu University of Technology was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in her room. South Africa lost one of the outstanding A rated scientist whose ‘soul was vandalised during the Fees Must Fall protests.  Australia attributes campus sexual assault to two cardinal factors: a toxic drinking culture as well as inequality between men and women in society.  Briefly put, a toxic drinking culture at the university coupled with patriarchy is a combination of tragedy.

It is apparent that universities are embarrassed to share data on rape; rather they are willing to share data on employment equity. The reluctance of universities to share data on rape; could be likened to a hidden wound.  A hidden wound cannot be cured. The philosophical antennae on the part of universities about rape is doing little or nothing to solve this titanic challenge. Our universities have to take a leaf out of the Australian university’s book. All Australian universities have come together for the first time in the Australian history to share data on sexual assault and harassment and have carved out a standard on reporting incidents and supporting victim; thus healing the hidden wound which is still festering at South African universities. If the Australians can do it, why can’t we do it? It does not need police to come with the standard, but the university community. There is a tendency in our society which has turned into a predilection; where society relegates every task to the police, even tasks which involve common sense. It is for this reason that most of our effort fail because we want to regulate even common sense!

The sexual assault of students while at university is not only unique to South Africa. This phenomenon is something ubiquitous! Research has shown that one in five American women have been sexually assaulted while at university. Most university victims are assaulted by casual acquaintances, often at parties where the victims are frequently intoxicated, under the influence of drugs, or otherwise incapacitated. More often than not victims of sexual violence do not get enough support from society. To add an insult to the wound; they are being turned from pillar to post by law enforcement agencies. Society fails to empathise with the victims of sexual violence.

It was Harry S. Truman who once said: “It’s a recession when your neighbour loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.” If one wants to understand how victims of sexual assault feel one has to talk to them. In order to understand how the beehive works one has to talk to the bees.

Moran graphically describes what the victims of campus rape go through in American society: “The victim doesn’t display emotions consistent with sexual assault. She contradicts herself. She stops and starts and jumps around. She can’t remember important details, or only remembers them after the initial interview. Law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and jurors typically interpret such victim behaviour as inexplicable at best, and often as a signal of deception.”

Dr. Rebecca Campbell and Dr David Lisa have developed Trauma Informed Investigation or the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI) to assist victims of sexual assault. Trauma Informed Investigation allows an investigator to understand the following:

  • Victims will have a broad range of emotional responses during and after assault.
  • Victims may have trouble relating an incident chronologically. The order and timing in which details are reported has no bearing on the credibility of the statement.
  • Disclosure is a process. New details are likely to be remembered after the initial interview.

It is high time that that South African universities used FEIT to assist victims of sexual violence with a view to improving the lives of female students whilst on campus.

To borrow language from British Attorney General, Hartley William Shawcross at the Nuremberg Trial in 1946: “There comes a point when a man must refuse to answer to his leader if he is also to answer to his own conscience”. The mere fact that a student took her life is evident enough that she had to answer to her own conscience and defied the insensitive and cold society. In addition, universities should establish a ‘war cabinet’ that will deal with rape at our universities, because rape is no longer a battle. The succession of battles have turned the situation into a war. The ‘war cabinet’ should apply the principles that were once employed by Britain during Second World War.


Mabila Mathebula
Mabila Mathebula
Mabila Mathebula is a freelance author for and writes in his personal capacity.
He is active in a number of professional bodies, primarily the Institute of Project Management, and he was a member of the Transport Research Board (TRB) with its Head Office based in Washington DC, USA. In 2005 he was trained by BST; a USA based safety consulting firm as a Behavioral Based Safety Consultant.
Mabila’s qualifications includes a BA (Vista University), BA (Hon) (UNISA), MBA (Milpark Business School), and a Post Graduate Diploma in Advanced Project Management (Cranefield College of Project Management). He is currently completing his PhD in Construction Management (NMMU).
His professional career path includes working as Accounting Teacher at Pace College in Soweto, News Producer at SABC in Polokwane, HR Manager and Safety Manager at Transnet Freight Rail in Johannesburg. In 2002 he ventured into the world of consulting as a SHE (Safety, Health and Environment) consultant; exchanging security for freedom. He now works as a Senior Researcher at the Railway Safety Regulator in Gauteng (South Africa).
Mabila has spoken at numerous international conferences on four continents, and is a regular contributor to various professional journals, newspapers and magazines and has been instrumental towards the establishment of the Railway Safety Regulator in South Africa and has written a lot on railway safety. He is also a co-author of a Life Orientation Grade 11 text book.
His preferred quote is: “We are unequal in what we know, but equal in our infinite ignorance”.

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