Rhodes University – where leaders learn. As many others will profess, Rhodes University presents an environment which embraces people of all cultures, religions, sexual-orientations, races etc. These are the very things upon which the diversity of our country is based, the very things that we pride ourselves in and the reason we are able to call ourselves the Rainbow Nation. South Africa’s constitution is based on Equity. Focusing on Equality for all, no matter what the differences that could potentially divide us as a people.
University is usually the beginning stage or space for an experience of “the big bad world”. We come from high school, where we’re sheltered and everything is rosy and pretty. I came to University understanding that I would meet people from diverse backgrounds but assuming that all people would be respected regardless of who they are and where they come from. Understanding that the University cannot control peoples’ behaviour, I always hoped that in all efforts they would ensure that the rights of those affected, violated and discriminated against would be given protection by the University and “the powers that be”.
After attending the Truth Commission and being a participant, I realise and alert you all to the fact that this is not necessarily true. There are systems in place, but the constitution has not always been upheld and “the system” has failed its people.
An excerpt from the e-mail sent out to all Rhodes personnel and students reads as follows:
“When the first RU Truth Commission was held in 2008 the event was able to surface the prejudice, discrimination and violence faced by our students in a way that allowed honest engagement with the dark underbelly of university.
This year’s focus for Constitution Week is ‘the right to dignity’. Shining a
light in dark places, allowing students to tell their own stories of violation and humiliation, may go some way to restoring their dignity and renewing the institution’s commitment to combating discrimination on all
There were 9 victims, a panel of 4 Comissioners as well as an audience of all students who were interested in the stories of the individuals who had decided to take part. Victims sat before the panel with their backs towards the audience, stated their case and were heard. No questions were asked, no comments were given. It was a space created for students to express their hurt and human rights violations.
A rape victim reported her case, and she still saw her attacker around campus in the months that followed.
A lady who had been here in 2002, received poor counsel after being told she was HIV positive. She said she learned 5% of what she knows about HIV at Rhodes.
Two men spoke of their experiences as black people on campus. One said he was not even seen, he was not respected and felt like a sub-human. Another was angry because it was only his ability to speak eloquently that separated him from “the other blacks”.
A group of friends, 2homosexuals and one heterosexual experienced a verbal and physical assault. They reported it and were treated like drunk kids and the issue was sat on by the Campus Protection Unit. A lesbian woman was attacked verbally by an african man from another country who demanded to know what would be done about the homosexuals as if they were a problem. He was frustrated because he did not understand why they were allowed to be free. She says this happened in an academic environment and no one came to her defense.
A muslim girl, who happens to be black, swati, ndebele and zulu too expressed her inability to be who she is without being laughed at or ridiculed. On the one side, she’s not black enough and on the other she just isn’t muslim enough.
Unfortunately I cannot go into the nitty gritties of the evening as people’s identities need to be protected in the media etc. But all who spoke had legitimate grievances and had not been protected by the institution where they are leaders in the process of learning. The system, and the leaders who have already learned just seem to have failed each individual. In some cases they had eventually helped, but in others they were yet to assist.
People were hurt. At times there was a deafening silence, at other times there were shocked expressions and then you had the occasional “mm” in agreement with the victim’s statement.
After all the statements had been heard it was time for the commissioners to reflect, and all they could do was empathise and sympathise with those that had spoken.
The deputy dean of students, Roger Adams said they had been discussing the awkward moments that people have in life and he said that he had come to realise that the awkward moments were sometimes necessary in order for you to understand what people are faced with and how to address these matters.
Dr Rosaan Kruger, a proctor at the University said “Equality is what our constitution focuses on. Our inherent equality and right to dignity as people is what our constitution faces.” She went on the say that in forums such as the one lastnight, it is the ignorance of people that also needs to be addressed.
Ms Susan Smiles, Director of Special Projects expressed her sincere apologies to those who had been hurt by the University, those who had not been protected. “I hope humanity can be brought into the disciplinary system. It is being re-written”
Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela thanked us. He then quoted Tinyiko Maluleke who said “Talks on constitutional values are pointless if you do not identify who is human.”. He said “We need to recognise our common humanity otherwise we will continue to tret each other badly. He encouraged us to engage other students on the matters that were brought forward.
I thought the evening was one of great significance. The University was addressed at it’s highest levels. However, I think they fail to realise that we know it goes higher than a Proctor and deputy Vice-Chancellor. Maybe all people on the disciplinary committees, the esteemed Council of the University could take a few minutes just to listen to where we are, how we feel etc. A University is our first taste of the Big Bad World. If we cannot recognise the humanity and inherent equality that all have in such a small space, how do we infiltrate what we have learnt in the real big bad world? How do we say then that we have truly been educated where leaders learn if we find ourselves behaving in a manner which does not reflect the attitudes of a leader?
We need to always stand up for ourselves, even when the system fails us. Never stop fighting for what you believe in. Some of the cases above are still being discussed, they’re still being heard but there needs to come a point where none can be referred to as victims but victors.