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UCT to pit research might against gender violence after tragedy

Image: University of Cape Town

In the wake of the rape and murder of a student, the UCT chancellor vows to use the university’s research power to fight gender-based violence.

The University of Cape Town will use its academic and research might to understand the problem of gender-based violence after the rape and murder of student Uyinene Mrwetyana, the outgoing chancellor, Graca Machel, has pledged. 

To loud cheers during a memorial on campus for Mrwetyana on 4 September, Machel said the university will start a programme with its top researchers, working with other institutions, to interrogate the causes of gender violence and the “deeply-rooted crisis in family structures”.

University campuses across South Africa erupted in the wake of Mrwetyana’s murder, which has pushed nationwide anger over violent attacks against women to boiling point.

Mrwetyana went missing on 24 August. On 3 September police announced that she had been raped and murdered, allegedly in a post office in a Cape Town suburb where she was collecting a package. A suspect has been arrested.     

Reaction was swift. There were chaotic scenes on the night of 3 September at the University of the Western Cape, which is also mourning the murder of a female student. There, students “outed” an alleged rapist who then had to be escorted by the police. Students and police clashed, and rubber bullets were fired.

The following morning, protesters—many of them students—gathered at Parliament and at the Cape Town International Convention Centre where the World Economic Forum Africa was underway. Protests were planned in other parts of the country and night vigils were held at UCT and nearby Stellenbosch University.

Mrwetyana’s death caps a bloody week for South African women. A spate of murders, including that of Leighandre Jegels, a South African boxing champion, has gripped the public. UCT has provided counselling to staff and students to deal with the trauma. The university suspended academic activities and declared 4 September a day of mourning. 

“It is a fact that sexual and gender-based violence is rampant and our Nene is just one of a long list of women and vulnerable and marginalised people who are brutalised daily,” said Mamokgethi Phakeng, the UCT vice-chancellor, in a statement.

‘Not the country we fought for’

Thousands of students and staff members all clad in black attended the memorial service in front of the UCT’s Sarah Baartman Hall on Wednesday. The mood was sombre and reflective, with many students and staff consoling each other and others carrying flowers and placards.

A fired-up Machel drew loud cheers from the crowd despite the circumstances. Normally soft-spoken, she did not mince her words as to the scale of the problem the country faces.

“This is not the country we fought for,” she said. “Our reality is that we are a society where women and children are not safe anywhere. Something absolutely deeply wrong is happening.” 

Machel, whose own daughter lost an eye to gender violence, urged women to protect each other. “We cannot succumb to this and feel powerless,” she said. She called on South Africans to “make abusers afraid of our anger and action” and to isolate them.

Buti Manamela, the deputy minister of higher education, science and technology, also received a positive response from the crowd. He said that the higher education sector is outraged at the gruesome murder, and the fact that routine errands could lead to rape and murder.

“There is a growing toxic masculinity on campuses that have become institutionalised. Silence [of men] is fuelling toxic masculinity and is part of the problem,” he said.

Manamela insisted, however, that the government has policies to turn the tide, and that these should be accompanied by better institutional policies. The first priority is to remove abusers from campuses: “Naming and shaming should be at the top of the list that we must do.” 

Manamela said that it should be made easier for women to report gender-based violence and that men should be partners in the fight while keeping in mind that women have agency.

In May the government announced the establishment of a team to address the scourge of gender-based violence on university campuses. The team began its work in June.

Sipho Pityana, the UCT council chair, received a subdued response at the memorial with no applause. Pityana praised the role of UCT’s management and of Phakeng, while urging the community to be calm and reflective. Those who are angry should act against “murderous criminals, not each other,” he added.

Asanda Lobelo, UCT students’ representative council president, said Mrwetyana’s death is a reflection of the country and the “growing national crisis” of violence against women.

She added that students moved their march to parliament forward one day to 4 September to protect it from exploitation by politicians. She called on students to maintain their energy and said that the struggle includes other student populations facing discrimination.

“We will teach men the same about ‘men are trash’ as we did to white people about white privilege,” she said.