Pedro Mzileni : University has become place where students fear being raped

A new name of the university was launched, a prestigious ocean science campus was unveiled, a new logo revealed, great speeches were made, red ribbons were cut, it was flowers and roses.

We had arrived in the promised land, with a new university with values and new angels. A month later, reality kicked back in. A man walks into the computer labs of the Nelson Mandela University Second Avenue Campus at night unchecked, in the full glare of CCTV cameras, and rapes two female students.

There you have it: an institution imprisoned, with demons of mediocrity, black invincibility, white supremacy, racism, classism and patriarchy remaining intact.

This prompted student protests at the university that whole week with demands for the removal of senior security staff and the strengthening of security detail in the campus.

This was a commendable action by students for it shows that their social consciousness and a sense of solidarity have been enhanced over the past two years.

They were concerned about the plight of another person, a value of collectiveness in an environment that is administratively and academically imbedded in individualism.

This episode proved that universities are a site of rape and this so-called Nelson Mandela University is no different.

To give context, black students enrolled in Nelson Mandela University largely come from the disadvantaged communities of the Eastern Cape, and are subsidised by state bursaries and loans in the form of NSFAS grants to study.

More than 90% of students registered at the university stay off-campus due to the shortage of on-campus beds.

This shortage was caused by the unpreparedness of this former white minority institution to accommodate the progressive post-1994 enrolments.

For basic student livelihood necessities, such as transport, laptops, food, information, toiletries, clothing and textbooks, black students are at the mercy of NSFAS, the government and the university to provide them.

Therefore, having black female students, specifically, studying in a computer lab at night is not a surprise when NSFAS and the university fail to provide laptops on time with printing material and wi-fi in the comfort of students’ rooms, be they on or off campus.

In addition, while there has been an unprecedented increase in the enrolment of poor black students, the administration culture of the university is still orientated towards the provision of higher education to male, white and middle-income students.

For instance, security is heavily deployed to the daylight guidance and detail of vehicles, buildings, conferences and events, features associated with and prioritised by middle-income, white and male students and staff.

There is less security deployment towards the guidance and detail of human beings, be it at night or in daylight, walking, studying in libraries and labs, and using public transport, which are things associated with poor, black and female students.

If I had more space, I could give many other examples from many university departments who subconsciously provide racist and classist administration that is felt gravely by black, female and poor students.

This demonstrates that the student profile of the university has drastically changed while the middle management profile has remained the same.

The new generation of students is still under the mediocre control of the old Afrikaans bureaucratic administration that does not have a culture of caring.

Hence, the call by students for the immediate removal of the director of protection services is completely valid, but totally misinterpreted and philosophically misunderstood by the old guard in the university.

The ever-increasing number of black student enrolments in universities is driven by the perception that apartheid minority rule led to the humiliating proletarianisation of the black family and, therefore, a university qualification is an exit path from that lifecycle into a new trajectory of success characterised by employment, comfort and an improved socio-economic standard of living.

This is at the centre of what makes universities in South Africa become publicly reliable and legitimate institutions worthy of heavy financial investment by families, business and government.

Furthermore, they are one of the biggest employers in the economy.

Therefore, with Eastern Cape as a poor province having four such institutions – Rhodes, Fort Hare, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela – the destiny of millions of Eastern Cape families is heavily dependent on these universities.

Therefore, anything and everything associated with terminating the success and existence of black female students, such as rape, should immediately raise the alarm of all stakeholders to take serious action against injustice wherever it raises its ugly head. As Professor Pumla Gqola puts it, rape is violence. Rape is violence because it is force intended to hurt, damage, dehumanise and kill someone.

Rape is violence used to impose authority, and maintain power and control over another person.

A social structure called patriarchy makes it happen constantly and it makes it acceptable for millions to be raped regularly.

In addition, Elisabet le Roux argues that what further enables rape to take place in a university is the fact that our universities are closed environments with their own established practices and norms, like prisons and the military.

When something happens in a university, it is likely to remain within the walls of the university.

Nobody is held accountable by the broader public for sexual harassment or for being a racist.

It is only when the university launches an ocean campus and reveals its new logo that the public is invited. Otherwise, all forms of abuse and injustice threaten its “reputation”. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. The institutional culture ruthlessly celebrates rape culture. One would find events organised by universities and liquor businesses in student cities with promotions such as “First 100 ladies get free entrance and drinks”.

Symbols of this nature advance the narrative that the purpose of women is to liquidate their senses with alcohol for the entertainment of men.

The future lawyers, psychologists, scientists and business professionals trained in a university with this institutional cultural grow up to know that the purpose of women’s bodies is to satisfy men sexually.

They become socialised to believe in the normalisation of rape where in a patriarchal society, sexual violence becomes a lifestyle.

While the alleged rapist has been arrested and is facing trial, the most painful reality from this point is that female students of Nelson Mandela University must always be on the lookout for rape in the university space and they must constantly watch their backs. Added to the daily violent experience of being a student in the alienating institution, they must add another burden of trying to make themselves small, quiet and invisible.

In other words, Nelson Mandela University for them is not only a free space for learning as citizens – rather it has become a female fear factory.

Pedro Mzileni is a masters sociology student and SRC president at Nelson Mandela University.

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