Stephanie Cookson

The University of Pretoria held a vigil on 3 September to address the on-going xenophobic violence in Pretoria and issues of sexual and gender based violence across South Africa.

The vigil was held at 12:00 at the amphitheatre on Hatfield Campus, and concluded shortly after 14:00. The event began with five minutes of silence to acknowledge the lives lost to xenophobic and gender based violence in South Africa and Pretoria recently, followed by a short speech from SRC President, David Kabwa and Zenia Pero, chairperson of Amnesty International UP. Next, UP students were given the opportunity to articulate their outrage and sadness, many such students sharing their own stories of sexual assault. Attendance was over capacity for the venue that can seat three thousand.

Initially planned before the outbreak of protest action outside Hatfield residences, the vigil was largely spurred by the confession of the rape and murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana on Monday. “We need to get together, mourn together, work together,” said Pero.

“Many hands helped,” said Pero, “I wouldn’t say the vigil itself belongs to anyone, it was in the name of and for students.” According to Pero, many student leaders from various structures reached out to one another to plan the event, such as the Amnesty International, Economic Freedom Fighters UP Student Commands as well as the SRC, with the Centre for Sexuality, AIDS and Gender providing support towards the end of the vigil.

 

“We need to get together, mourn together, work together,”

 

Kabwa stated that the role of the SRC in the organisation of the vigil was “facilitatory.” “We secured the amphitheatre, we liaised with TuksFM to organise the sound and then put out word to student structures,” said Kabwa. As for the goals of the event, Kabwa explained that for the SRC, it was threefold. First and foremost, the vigil was aimed at being a symbol of solidarity, “to make a statement that we stand in solidarity against instances of gender based violence […] and with our students from international countries, and we stand in solidarity as one student body.”

Secondly, the goal of the vigil was to “provide a platform for any and all students […] to share their stories.” Lastly, Kabwa noted the need for the SRC to get an understanding of the view of UP students on these issues. When asked if this goal had been achieved, Kabwa explained that although today’s vigil on Hatfield Campus did achieve this, “it’s important to get input from the larger student body.” According to Kabwa, Onderstepoort Campus held a vigil and the SRC is yet to receive comments, demands or feedback from the event.

 

“I wouldn’t say the vigil itself belongs to anyone, it was in the name of and for students.”

 

Many students demanded the university make changes on many levels, particularly security services and their staff. “Many students are being assaulted on campus […] the university must not protect its reputation, it must release media statements […] when a student comes forward […] it must not be something just under the carpet, it must be addressed,” was expressed by one of the students who spoke. The head of a female residence spoke emotionally of the frequency with which students approach her with their sexual assault incidences. “A typical week for a head of residence is four girls coming to my house in seven days […] I am tired, I am tired of girls knocking on my door because you can’t control yourselves because she was wearing a short skirt,” she said.

One woman recounted the harrowing story of her rape and the beatings it involved, which she said lead to her development of epilepsy. In the emotional intensity of her speech, the student temporarily collapsed from a mild epileptic episode. With the help of bystanders, she nevertheless continued after a few minutes. “Because of a man,” she said, she is forced to face these life-long consequences of sexual violence.

 

“provide a platform for any and all students […] to share their stories.”

 

The expulsion of the perpetrators was the first call to action given to the university, followed by more counseling for victims, and to lessen the waiting period students face when attempting to receive counseling from Student Support Services. The demand to move semester tests to an earlier slot in the day for the safety of students who finish late in the evening was also made, in addition to “increased rape awareness on campus”. Lastly, the student suggested that ClickUp notifications should be sent out “when all perpetrators have been expelled.”

 

Developing story

Kayla Thomas and Sam Mukwamu 

Tension continued throughout 3 September with students marching to the Brooklyn Police station after the vigil. After being denied access to the police station, the students progressed to South Street where further protests began. Students have also begun a petition which one of the students, Njabulo Mlotshwa, explained is to create awareness and urge the university to meet student demands. Mlotshwa explained that the students are aiming for ten thousand signatures which they will deliver to the Vice-Chancellor, the Registrar, the SRC and Student Affairs. He also urged students to speak up regarding sexual assault and to report any incidents.

At approximately 18:00 on 3 September students marched from Studios@Burnett to various residences around Hatfield before holding a night vigil outside Prospect Street entrance.

Leaders of the night vigil confirmed to PDBY that the student movement at UP against gender based violence have called themselves “One Rapist, One Bullet” and have stated that the vigils, prayer groups and marches will continue as long as students feel unsafe around and on campus. The group will also be attending the arrested suspect’s hearing at the Pretoria Magistrates Court on 4 September.

Student unrest in response to gender based violence

 

Images:  Richardo Teixeira, Leah Rees & Ofentse Malele

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