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South Africa: Why has Rhodes University silenced student activism?

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Just two years ago, Rhodes University was energised by student activism, with protests, campus shut-downs and demands to transform the university and its culture. However, the university has swept away almost all evidence of this movement. For a so-called liberal institution, its heavy-handed response is alarming.

It was November 2015, near the end of official teaching time and just before the beginning of the exam season. A Sunday, around midnight. I knew something was going to happen, as I was part of student press at the time. Still, we all waited, not sure what it was going to be, who was going to start it, how it would end. And then, in the distance, faint chanting. It grew louder and louder, marching up the hill, with students heeding the call and running out of their residences to join the protest. It was time to shut campus down and stand up for something we believed in.

That was almost three years ago. As I walk around Rhodes University campus now, I sometimes have to remind myself that the protests did in fact happen. FeesMustFall in 2015. RUReferenceList in April 2016, and FeesMustFall again in October of that year. Three protests, one after the other, punctuated by student activism around transformation, decolonising the institution, and fighting against rape culture. We set up barricades. We stopped lectures and seminars. We held student body meetings. We marched up and down the hill every day, mobilising. We tweeted and hashtagged until we were trending across South Africa. We disrupted. For a brief moment, there was hope that finally, a university synonymous with a drinking culture and good times would wake up to the reality that for many of its students, Rhodes University is a toxic and triggering space. Then, the police came, storming through campus with their pellet guns and stun grenades. Their reaction was a shock. Although disruptive, the protests never devolved into violence, nothing that would warrant or justify police officers shooting at students (and in some cases, lecturers), dragging them into police vans, throwing stun grenade after stun grenade, and even forcing their way into residences. We were bullied into submission and silence.

Read: Memory and moving forward: #RhodesMustFall is not a shit argument

Photo: @RhodesSRC /Twitter

But that was not the end of the story. In 2017, the university expelled two students for their involvement in the protests, specifically RUReferenceList. Yolanda Dyantyi and Siya Nyulu were in their final year of studies. They were going to graduate and, given the often toxic environment at Rhodes for anyone who openly challenges a white liberal and patriarchal environment, they were probably never going to come back. The judgment meant that they could not graduate. Siya Nyulu was banned from Rhodes University for a year, Yolanda Dyantyi for life. Three years of their lives became null and void. Although Rhodes University tried to justify its decision, it is exceptionally cruel to punish women who were trying to fight for a university to be a safe and welcoming space for everyone. After all, the university do not seem to have that same energy when it comes to sexual assault. There is a joke that Rhodes University punishes plagiarism more severely than it does sexual assault. Morbid, but painfully true.

It is exceptionally cruel to punish women who were trying to fight for a university to be a safe and welcoming space for everyone.

No signs of remembrance

There is almost no trace of the protests anymore. No official mention of them. No kind of dedication or remembrance. They have been swept under the rug; an unfortunate period that the university had to go through but wants to quickly move on from. If only the same could be said of the students. I am one of the people left who was there during each protest. I remember the optimism, the solidarity, the anger, the panic and, finally, the resignation. How we decided, for our collective peace and sanity, to numb ourselves and move on. Some suffered quietly in their rooms, afraid to speak up in case they were subjected to some form of discrimination or judgement. Others simply packed up and moved away, putting Rhodes University behind them for good.

There is a joke that Rhodes University punishes plagiarism more severely than it does sexual assault.

Some simply switched off and distanced themselves as much as possible from the protests, supporting the cause but too afraid to get involved. But we were all affected, and it is alarming to see the pain and trauma of students being pushed aside in order to keep up appearances. Right now, at Rhodes University, it is business as usual. “Business as usual”. I hate that phrase. “Business as usual” for who? Certainly not for students banned from setting foot on campus. Certainly not for students still dealing with the trauma of being shot at and arrested. Certainly not for students who have been raped and see their perpetrators walking around campus care-free.

Read: Read: #RUReferenceList: Shifting the shame to rape perpetrators

File picture: Students attack the defaced statue of British mining magnate and politician, Cecil John Rhodes, as it is removed by a crane from its position at the University of Cape Town on April 9, 2015, in Cape Town. Photo: ANP/AFP Rodger Bosch

Rhodes University prides itself on being an institution “where leaders learn”. It has earned a reputation for having a drinking culture, for wild parties, good times and hard-working students. It positions itself as a liberal university that is unafraid of speaking up about difficult issues and encouraging its students to be active participants in society. But there is an underbelly to this shiny, positive image. It is an institution that refuses to look at its own faults and fix them. It is an institution that has broken and failed many of its students. It is an institution where poor black students feel marginalised and unrecognised. It is an institution where confronting the system has dire consequences. It is an institution where women do not feel safe. And it is an institution that has been given opportunity after opportunity to live up to its motto but has chosen not to learn and not to change.

People put their bodies, their mental health and their education on the line to fight an injustice, to champion something they believed in. To see their fight stomped out so swiftly is painful, but I know that this is not the end of the story. It may not be this month, it may not be this year, but student activism on Rhodes University campus will have its day again. And this time, they will not be silenced.

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