‘University failed us’

Young women who staged extraordinary protest at NMU graduation ceremony against rape and sexual abuse vow to intensify campaign

Nobubele Phuzu, 26, Zandile Tose, 26, and Nangamso Nxumalo ,23, take a stand against rape and the sexual abuse of students during a graduation ceremony at Nelson Mandela university on Friday.
Nobubele Phuzu, 26, Zandile Tose, 26, and Nangamso Nxumalo ,23, take a stand against rape and the sexual abuse of students during a graduation ceremony at Nelson Mandela university on Friday.
Image: Werner Hills

“Hurting deeply and knowing what he had done to her, she just could not stand there while he not only graduated, but received applause and cheers from the crowds, his family and friends, and the university.”

This was said by an outspoken Nobubele Phuza, 26, who was one of four women who staged a silent protest against rape and the sexual abuse of students in front of hundreds of people at a Nelson Mandela University graduation ceremony in Port Elizabeth on Friday.

Phuza – who was accompanied by fellow protesters Nangamso Nxumalo, 23, and Zandile Tose, 26 – was referring to the fourth and unnamed member of their protest group, who was allegedly raped by a fellow NMU student.

The young woman had walked away from the protest in the NMU Sports Centre on Friday afternoon, shortly before her alleged abuser was due to graduate.

According to the other women, two male students and alleged abusers – including one who allegedly sexually abused the young woman – graduated during different segments of the ceremony on Friday.

The ceremony recognised graduates from the faculties of education and law and also saw the awarding of honorary doctoral degrees.

All four women – who, with taped mouths, silently brandished posters with evocative statements about rape and sexual abuse – were seen taking their stand in front of the stage during the earlier segments of the ceremony.

They were dressed in black and held posters, one of which read “Congratulations, my rapist is graduating”.

Their actions echoed the presidency-shaking protest by four women in late 2016 when they stood silently with placards in front of a podium where former president Jacob Zuma was making a speech at the IEC national results operation centre.

The four, whose protest was in reference to the rape allegation once made against Zuma by Fezekile “Khwezi” Kuzwayo, who died in 2016, were violently removed from the centre.

On Friday night, a defiant Phuza told Weekend Post the NMU protest was “just the tip of the iceberg” and that engagements with the university’s management on its sexual abuse policy would be stepped up. In a letter sent to the university on Wednesday, the protesting women – part of a group which calls itself Activist ConneXions – wrote that 10 cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault had been reported on the campus in 2019.

They wrote: “To date, these cases have not been investigated and no dockets have been opened at [the university’s] legal services.

“Applications for no-contact orders and summary suspensions have been stalled at legal and protection services, forcing victims to share the same space as their abusers on a daily basis.

“Activist ConneXions can also confirm that it received news of the graduation of [a] convicted rapist [from 2018] during the autumn graduation taking place between April 5 and 13 2019.

“This is an indication of the failure of the university to do what is reasonably expected of them as per the Sexual Harassment and Sexual Offences Policy (2017).

“The graduation of students who have been found guilty of rape and other sexual offences, is a direct result of the failure of the university disciplinary process,” the letter reads.

“Students who are currently facing disciplinary processes for sexual offences, should not be at graduation or participate in any university activities until

. . . their case is completed.

“What is even more offensive is the celebration of convicted students at the 2019 autumn graduation, as if their crimes are not real.

“Activist ConneXions will protest autumn graduation and [calls] on the university to:

● Release the outcomes of completed trials with the quarterly report from the Transformation, Monitoring and Evaluation Unit;

● Immediately reverse the decision of the committee which suspended the expulsion of a rapist to allow him to graduate on April 5 2019;

● Appoint an investigating body to resolve the nine cases of sexual assault that have been reported since January 2019;

● Issue the necessary protective measures as per Appendix 1 clause 8.1 of the Sexual Harassment and Sexual Offences Policy to all victims/survivors who have reported a case from January 2019;

● Amend the . . . policy to force panels to complete cases within 10 days; and

● Appoint a co-ordinating body to implement and audit the response and prevention protocol for gender- and sexbased violence.

“If the university fails to act on this statement, we will interpret it as a signal of their allegiance with perpetrators over victims/survivors.

“The battle lines have been drawn between patriarchy and an equity-based reality. We can only wish that the university will choose the latter,” the letter read.

Nxumalo confirmed that the group had sent the letter on Wednesday, adding that a statement the group was preparing would be sent out later on Friday.

Speaking after their protest, Phuza further decried the institution’s policies around sexual abuse and said the group was insisting on a parallel process that would involve both the university’s internal actions and the police.

Accusing the institution of pandering to “toxic masculinity” at the university, Phuza said her group was in possession of a “reference list” containing the names of sexual abuse perpetrators at the institution.

NMU spokesperson Zandile Mbabela said: “There was a silent protest by about four students who held up placards in front of the stage.

“Chancellor Dr Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi acknowledged the action and committed to follow up.”

A statement released by NMU dean of students Luthando Jack late on Friday said: “Gender-based violence remains one of the biggest and most profound problems in South African society.

“Its prevalence in institutions of higher learning – a microcosm of this society – has garnered much debate and attention, particularly in recent years.”

Jack said members of NMU’s management had met with the group on Friday and that further engagements with the women were set to follow.

Jack also acknowledged that: “As an institution, we concede that our investigation capacity is still wanting . . . The university thus commits to expedite its response to protection mechanisms as raised by the protesting students, while pursuing long-term effort towards the eradication of gender-based violence on university campuses.”