Gender, Race, Social Justice

South African universities are facing a crisis of sexual assault committed by staff

With no official sexual violence protocols to follow in universities, these staff members are rarely held accountable for their actions.

Phakana George, a South African law student, accepted a ride home from her law lecturer after a meeting where they discussed her marks. But, instead of driving her home, he took her to his house where he sexually assaulted her. He said that she owed him sexual favors because he boosted her law marks by two percent.

In South Africa, where gender-based violence is five times higher than the global rate, stories like this are not uncommon. Often university students and staff are coerced into performing sexual favors for male staff in exchange for higher marks or job security. 

This same lecturer has assaulted other students in his class. Phakana and another student opened cases against this lecturer and it took almost a year before these cases amounted to anything. Just a few days before the outcome of the sexual harassment case, this lecturer resigned from Phakana’s university and has allegedly started a new job at another university.

Dr. Siphokazi Magadla, a politics professor at Rhodes University in South Africa who has done extensive research on gender-related topics, talks about why staff accused of sexual assault often manage to land new jobs. She says part of the reason is that many universities have no formal sexual violence protocols to follow.

“It’s not useful to narrow cases of sexual violence to just institutions. And that’s why we need a national mechanism. The absence of one allows perpetrators to be recycled in the system because no one is keeping track. We need the department to keep track of the history of cases against people, even if those cases aren’t completed,” says Siphokazi.

Phangane’s perpetrator also taught at Rhodes University before moving to the University of Fort Hare where Phangane is studying. At Rhodes University, he harassed other women. Andi*, a law student from Rhodes University, talks about her experience of being harassed and pursued by this same law lecturer. Andi says the harassment started when she was in his class in 2017. During a meeting, he called her beautiful and made inappropriate comments about meeting up. Following his resignation (likely spurred by rumors of his sexual misconduct) this lecturer stopped Andi on campus and offered her a ride home.

“He said ‘You know I am no longer your lecturer, right? So there’s no longer conflict of interest, and I can offer you a ride home,’” Andi explains. “He goes onto say: ‘Because there’s no conflict of interest, I’d like to see you and speak to you in another setting other than lecturer and student.’”

After rejecting his advances, the law lecturer managed to access Andi’s phone number and sent her frequent text messages proposing plans. She had to block him. Andi explains that she is lucky he didn’t physically assault her. 

“Men often use their positions of power to lure students into sleeping with them in exchange for better marks. And other students, for their marks, they had to do certain things with him because they weren’t as fortunate as I was to have high class marks. I just wonder what he puts other students through if they’re not doing as well,” Andi says.

Siphokazi explains that, often, men in universities target black women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. These are usually the women who are forced to sleep with these perpetrators.

“They won’t want to jeopardize their marks because their family needs them to stay in university. Often, this is the most pervasive thing, using someone’s socioeconomic status against them. It’s the same with staff members. Black women who are not permanent staff members and need their contracts to be renewed, need promotions or need to secure their jobs often won’t report,” Siphokazi explains.

She adds that the unrelenting patriarchal structure of many South African families makes its way into other facets of life including universities. A combination of patriarchy and the fact that universities don’t have strong policies to deal with sexual assault cases makes many campuses conducive to instances of sexual violence.

“In many institutions, black women are just not believed. That’s just how the system works,” she adds. “We are moving from that to ask ‘What does it take for these institutions to believe survivors?’”

Siphokazi, along with other lecturers in South Africa, sent the South African Minister of Higher Education an open letter with demands focused on combatting sexual violence in universities. Their demands include a special investigation into the extent and scope of sexual offenses that occur in the higher education sector, the blacklisting of anyone found guilty so that they aren’t able to get other jobs and the collection of quarterly reports of sexual offense cases in universities.

“Reporting on a quarterly basis means we are able to keep track of where these cases are. In 2017, 47 rape cases were opened, but there’s no follow through on what happened to these cases,” says Siphokazi.

Sexual violence remains rife in South African campuses because of a culture steeped in patriarchy and because little to no support is offered to survivors of rape. Andi adds that most of these cases go unreported because sexual violence is so normalized and survivors are often not believed.

“Maybe students are just so used to it that they don’t report. They just suck it up,” she says. “I can say that I personally am one of those people who did not report something that I considered very inappropriate and I chose to brush it off.”

South African universities have a long way to go in combatting gender-based violence. A functional protocol that supports survivors in South African universities is an essential first step to encouraging women to report their cases. At the moment, women who choose to report instances of sexual misconduct in universities are likely to be met with not much aside from further suffering.