On 20 April 2016 students at Rhodes University stripped down in protest and used their bare bodies as placards. “Still not asking for it,” read a slogan carved on skin in-between naked breasts.
The defiant bare-breasted protest, a prosecutable act, was sparked by an even more violent act: the publication of a “Reference List”. A list of 11 people accused of rape on campus.
There is no doubt that the Reference List is a violent act. Mondli Makhanya called it a “public lynching” and compared it to apartheid-style necklacing—the of stuffing a person in a tyre and burning them alive.
Perhaps Makhanya’s hyperbole is fitting. However, to pinch from Slavoj Žižek, we must ‘disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure’ of directly visible and ‘subjective’ violence ‘performed by a clearly identifiable agent.’ We must, instead, ‘perceive the contours of the background which generates [this] outburst.’ We must explore the systemic violence or the ‘catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.’
The List attacks two essential tenants of our social compact—the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. Both tenants, now entrenched deeply in Article 35 of our Bill of Rights, dictate that an accused is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a court of law through a fair trial.
The presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial are based on a calculus of rights in a free and fair society. They assume that an accused has inherent human dignity, and is entitled, as a matter of right, to freedom and equal protection and enjoyment of the law.
These fundamental rights brought about by the advent of democracy protect individuals from arbitrary violence at the whim of the public.
However, the calculus does not compute for women and queer people (generally) and victims of rape (specifically) in South Africa. Women live in constant and well-founded fear of arbitrary violence. They are deprived of the dignity, freedom and quality that are essential for the equation to work—through relentless sexual, emotional, physical and psychological violence.
The violence is sanctioned by the state through non-action. The List is therefore a violent protest against a violent system. Simamkele Dlakavu, citing Pumla Gqola, said the protesters want to establish a ‘social cost’ of rape.
The protesters are redesigning the equation: In a society where women are violated with impunity and constantly denied fundamental rights, they too must deny the same rights to others.
Why must a rape accused enjoy his inherent dignity, freedom and equality when the same rights are denied systemically to the accuser? And what’s the logic for demanding that the accuser acquiesce to the system?
Article 37 of the Bill of Rights provides for suspension of certain fundamental rights in a state of emergency. The protesters at Rhodes are simply imposing the same undeclared state of emergency on everyone else.
In the 1950s Nelson Mandela, deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, was the poster-boy for non-violence. It was the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 that wrenched him down from his tall horse, and caused him to agitate for armed resistance. When Umkhonto we Sizwa was formed in 1961, the Manifesto declared, ‘The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight.’ Recounting his choice of violence in the dock during a trial for his life, Mandela said, ‘I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression’.
I am not saying the actions of protesters are right or even lawful. I am simply saying their logic is valid.
The corollary, perhaps, is that the accusation of rape will lose its sting; that accuseds will claim to be victims of a ‘lynching’. This is a gamble that protesters are taking after trying everything else.
Perhaps living in fear that we too may find ourselves on the List will motivate us to take action. Maybe, just may, we will finally realise the urgency of our current situation. Cornor Cruise O’Brien said sometimes ‘violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.’
Image Credit: Joseph Paris (Flickr: FEMEN 15 oct 2012) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.