South Africa #5: In the grip of Gender-Based Violence

Preface: Yikes! I am so sorry, this post has taken so much longer to finally publish than I originally expected it to! I wrote a lot of it in the week that these events were happening, but school-work and other commitments really picked up after that week and it has only been now that I have a chance to breathe again and finish writing this. So sorry for the long glut in content, but things should be able to resume a more regular pace going forward! Thanks for continuing to read even with my irregular schedule!

Warning: this post might contain a bit of sensitive material that some readers might find disturbing. Read at your discretion.

Hi again! This week has been a particularly interesting one for Cape Town. If you have been listening to news you might have heard that South Africa is going through a little bit of turmoil right now and might be potentially unsafe. Safety for myself has not been an issue (as I’ll elaborate more on later), but there certainly have been some high tensions in the country this week.

So to explain what is going on, you have to start with last week. Last week there was no school because it was the mid-semester vacation (“Vac”, as they call it here), and at the beginning of the break a first-year UCT student named Uyinene Mrwetyana (who also went by just “Nene”) went missing without explanation. The fellow members of her campus residence hall were concerned, so they began spreading awareness in person and on social media, asking people to look out for Nene. They also created posters and some very large paper signs that they began hanging all around the city, organizing everything under the campaign of #BringNeneHome. Some walks around the city were taken to spread awareness and to hand out flyers, and at least one night vigil was held as well.

One of the most common images used of Nene throughout all of this

As the week went on the search intensified and by the fourth day a Personal Investigator was hired by the family to add an extra search on top of the ongoing investigations by the police and the Campus Protection Service. Official emails from the UCT administration were sent out to all students to keep on the lookout for the missing girl. By day 5, a Friday, a suspect post office worker was apprehended in connection with the disappearance. A few days later, the suspect admitted to being connected to the disappearance and gave authorities the details of what had happened to Nene.

Apparently what happened was that Nene had gone to the Post Office at the beginning of the week to send a package. When she arrived, the 42 year-old Post Office worker on duty told her that the power was out and that she should come back later. When Nene returned, the worker was the only one there, but instead of helping her with the package he attacked the 19-year old girl and raped her. At some point, the worker knocked Nene out, and when she regained conscious and tried to scream for help, the post man apparently bludgeoned her to death with a scale.

As details of this tragedy began spreading around the city, it disseminated across campus like a disease of gloom. The first Monday of classes after from break, I was out on the main central plaza when I stumbled upon a huge circle of people all holding hands and a large crowd of onlookers surrounding them. The people were all singing sad songs in remembrance of Nene and few specific individuals stepped out to speak to the crowd at different points. In addition to being overwhelmed with sorrow, most of the girls on campus, even the ones in my study abroad program, felt unsafe after hearing Nene’s story because it now felt as if nowhere was free from risk. If you couldn’t even go to the Post Office (which was only a block or so away from the Police Station) without being in danger of getting raped by the employees, then where could you go safely? Girls started sharing resources all over social media that had tips for how to stay safe and that linked to products they could buy to keep themselves safe. One group of activists raised a large sum of money over a couple of days to pass out free bottles of pepper spray to girls on campus.

That Monday people also began organizing a protest to take place on Wednesday, and news of it spread rapidly. They planned to protest against female violence and wanted to boycott all classes and academic activities to make a statement that these kinds of incidents could not go on any longer. People had previously been extremely heart-broken and in a lot of grief over what happened to Nene, but this is the point where the slow transition from mourning to rage began.

By Tuesday, what had happened to Nene and conversations on women’s violence were all anybody was talking about. More events to mourn Nene were organized (like placing flowers at the Post Office, holding a meeting for students hosted by the head of UCT, and many, many, other things) and talks of protests became more and more frequent. People claimed that students were unfit to go to classes in their current state and tried to get all classes cancelled for Tuesday, but they were unsuccessful. However, the class “tutorials” (the name for these extra discussion-based sessions you have to take as a part of your class in addition to your lectures) were cancelled for one of my courses that day. There was another large crowd of people demonstrating for Nene on the Plaza that day, trying to stop people from just going about their daily routine as if nothing was wrong. A few people shouted at passer-byers as a large crowd behind them sat in silence. Everyone on campus was wearing black that day to signify mourning.

That afternoon, I was sitting in the basement of the library, doing some studying. I spend nearly every weekday in the library because it is an excellent environment for focusing. All five floors prohibit eating as well as talking, making it extremely quiet and studious at any hour of the day. That is why it was so odd when I heard what seemed to be loud shouting coming from above me. A couple minutes passed, and the shouting didn’t seem to be getting any quieter, so curiosity finally prompted me to leave my stuff and make my way upstairs to see what was going on. On ascending to the ground level I was surprised to find the crowd I had seen earlier on the plaza was marching straight through the library! As they marched, all of them were shouting and chanting in unison, and they made a loop around the first floor of the library.

The protesters marching through the library upstairs

While this was happening, one of the protestors managed to pull the emergency alarm, adding another layer of sound that blared through the library at almost the same volume as the protestors. The alarm called for the evacuation of everybody in the building, so I and everyone else packed up our things and headed through the cacophony toward the library entrance so that we could leave.

The emergency alarm that went off when the protesters came through the library

However, it quickly became apparent that there was a problem with this plan because the mob of protestors had inadvertently congregated in front of the library’s only exit! Things got progressively more hectic and confusing as throngs of people came from all levels of the library to leave, only to be blocked by the still-chanting group of protestors.

We stood around in an awkward situation for about ten minutes with the alarm sounding and the protestors chanting before someone finally managed to direct the protestors into a side stairwell where they continued their march onto the upper floors. This un-blocked the entrance to the library, and everyone was freed from the crowd. I decided that I was not going to get any more work done in the day after such an experience, so I went home. That evening we received word that classes were cancelled for the following day campus-wide, and students were encouraged to take care of themselves during this emotionally turbulent time. Plans continued to be made for protests in the city center the following day.

As Wednesday dawned, the planned protest came to pass. Thousands of UCT students showed up to the Cape Town Convention Center and the Parliament building, as well as students from some of the city’s high schools and other citizens. The goal was to interrupt and embarrass the President as he hosted the World Economic Forum that day in Cape Town, an event that was gathering many political and business leaders from around Africa and the globe. Unfortunately, the police did not respond very kindly to peaceful protestors, and they began spraying the crowds with hoses to remove them from the streets, as well as throwing stun grenades into the mobs.

The police using hoses to spray protesters near the Parliament building
The police throwing stun grenades at protesters downtown

I myself did not participate in the protests that day (especially because International Students at UCT aren’t allowed to take part in any demonstrations), but I did happen to be on campus for part of the memorial service taking place for Nene that afternoon. It was packed full of people, all wearing black (just as we had all been doing on Tuesday), and a variety of different speakers came up to speak out against gender-based violence.

Walking up to the plaza where the memorial service was being held
A shot of the crowds of people in attendance for the memorial service

Something surprising occurred at the end of the service, however, when any women who had been victims of gender-based assault were asked to come to the stage and call out their perpetrators by name. What was truly shocking was when one girl came to the microphone to tell her story, and as she told it people in the crowd began shouting “HE’S HERE! HE’S HERE!” Everyone stood up to glimpse the man being pointed at, and the crowd started getting really agitated. Just as things were escalating, though, the girl at the microphone called for everyone to refrain from violence against the guy, telling the crowd that they would be portrayed as the ones in the wrong if that happened. Instead, she asked the man to leave, and everyone watched as he stood up and walked through the glaring crowd of people, many women hitting him with their bags or slapping him as he went. It didn’t end there, however, because not long after there was another girl gave her story of being assaulted in a bathroom, and then pointed to the man responsible who was sitting in the front row! What was especially creepy about this case was that, though the guy stood up and walked out of the event, he was smiling the whole time as people hurled insults at him. It was a very disconcerting reaction from someone who had just been called out for assault and was being smacked with purses, but he kept his smile on the whole way out.

Thursday began with awakening to the sound of protestors passing outside my window. At least three groups of high schoolers walked by our building on their way to protest for the second day at the Parliament building. The protests were even larger than they had been the day before, with three more universities joining UCT in the demonstration as well as lots of other people from the city. The streets were completely PACKED.

Some of the crowds of people protesting near the convention center that day

After the protests had gone on for a few hours that day, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa finally came outside and addressed the crowd. Unfortunately, he was not received well when he all he did was make a lot of vague claims about how things needed to be change and couldn’t go on, and that “in an hour” he was going to be asking the Parliament to enact change. He didn’t really specify what that “change” was, and a lot of people were also upset because he didn’t affirm that the death penalty would be brought back. The death penalty is VERY popular in South Africa, but it is also illegal. Almost 100% of the people I talked to complained about the need to bring the death penalty back and bemoaned how prisoners are kept in nicer conditions than people on the street.

Ramaphosa addresses the protesters

Over the weekend, these were the topics that definitely came up the most in conversation. More emails were sent out by the UCT administration and by the student government about new ways to report gender-based violence and other similar topics, but for the most part the weekend was pretty uneventful. However, on Sunday night students received an email from the student government, asking everyone to boycott classes on Monday and not show up to school so that “things could not go on as normal” when no true changes had still been made.

Unfortunately for the student government, students’ fear for their grades overcame their desire for change and the boycott plan flopped spectacularly. Most students still attended classes the next day and things did indeed begin to regain a sense of normalcy. Not all students were going to take this lying down, however, and when I passed by in the early morning a small line of people holding hands had begun to stand in the middle of the main plaza to try and revive the idea of a shut down. They (aggressively) called for everyone passing by to join them, telling people that they were a part of the problem if they did not join the line.

A short scene as the line began to form in the morning, calling for a campus shut-down

By later in the morning the size of the line had grown, and eventually the activists had acquired a number of outdoor picnic tables which they used to solidify their blockage. By the mid-afternoon, they had also obtained a microphone and began listing their demands for the school to the crowd watching. Their motivation was admirable – the group felt that too often South Africans will get riled up about a cause but then after a week of protesting will just forget about it and nothing will change. This group wanted to make sure real change happened before things went back to normal.

The protesters, now with picnic tables, listing their demands

After listing their demands for the school, those occupying the plaza also announced what their plans were for protests throughout the week. They said that they were going to organize on the plaza the next morning and then march to each of the buildings on campus and “shut down” all classes that were happening. After shutting the campus down they would return to the plaza at noon and then march to the UCT administration building where they were going to present their memorandum that listed their demands. If the school did not take action by Wednesday, the protesters claimed they would then organize another campus shut-down on Thursday. That was the plan of action, and I left to go study before hearing anything else they said that day.

What I didn’t realize was that part of their plan of action was to march around campus that day as well, because as I was studying in the library I began hearing the now-familiar sound of chanting echoing through the quiet halls. Sure enough, the protesters had showed up in the library again to shut it down, but they had learned from their mistakes last time and on this day they allowed us to all evacuate through the emergency exits of the building. Also, instead of pulling the emergency alarm to set off the blaring siren, one of the protestors got on the all-library intercom and explained to people what was happening and where to go. It was mildly more annoying that this was happening for the second week in a row, but I understood where the protestors were coming from so I wasn’t too upset when they kicked us all out. I moved to a different building where I hoped I could get a couple more hours of work done before the protestors arrived to shut it down as well.

The protesters coming through the library to “shut down” campus

The next day I was not affected by the protests, though a few people I know had their classes interrupted. In one class, after an activist interrupted the lecture, the professor had the women in the class take a vote on if class should continue or not. Almost all of them voted that it should, so the lecture resumed. That evening at our apartments, an impromptu meeting was called for the students of our study abroad program by our Program Advisor. In the meeting we swapped stories of what was happening, and discussed what the outcomes would be if these protests lasted until the end of the year and interrupted our finals. Everybody was put on the same page and some fears were put at ease for students who worried how this would affect their GPA.

That night, on September 10, the student government sent out an email to all students, informing them that the UCT administration had responded to many of the demands made in the student memorandum and that changes were being implemented. In light of this, the student government asked for all protests to cease and for students to return to regularly attending class again. I thought this would be the watershed moment that marked the end of the protests, but unfortunately that was not quite the case. As has happened with many South African protests (I have been informed), activists for other causes began piggy-backing on the #AmINext movement to vent their own anger as well. This time it was the staff of many of the maintenance and food vendors on campus who were upset at UCT for out-sourcing their jobs (this has been a contentious topic all year). They decided to keep marching around for attention even without the students, and yet again the library was targeted while I was working in it. This time, though, the protestors were a group of purely adults, and they just sort of stood at the entrance to the library but didn’t walk through. This was the first time that I was legitimately frustrated at being kicked out of the library, because it seemed like the protests should have been over. The university condemned the demonstrations put on by staff, and eventually over the next few days they all petered out.

The UCT staff protesting the outsourcing of their jobs

Lasting impacts

Here in the present, we now are about a month removed from the high tensions of protests and things have gone back to a relative normal. However, the city hasn’t forgotten about the #AmINext movement and all it stood for. Discussions and comments about gender-based violence are still much more common here in Cape Town now, and you see it pop up in different advertisements and media around the city. Additionally, there has been a huge surge in forms of art around campus that call attention to gender-based violence. There have been lots of elaborate displays, posters, and graffiti promoting slogans like “it’s time for change”, “I don’t want to die with my legs open”, and “keep the energy”. It really is prevalent on campus and you can’t go without seeing art or media relating to the violence somewhere. One other place that vestiges of the gender-based violence opposition came up was at a museum I visited this past Thursday. The City of Cape Town was hosting a special event there where art relating to the message of protest and gender-based violence was being auctioned off to help a charity trying to counteract the assaults. Many of the art pieces featured Nene. There were also rows of benches set up for attendees to listen to speakers give talks about violence against women, and to watch demonstrations and presentations like spoken word poems that people had put together to speak out against the violence. Cape Town hasn’t forgotten what happened and I don’t think it will for a very long time.

If you believe in prayer

There are definitely things that can be prayed for here:

  • Even though some time has passed now, please pray comfort over Uyinene (“Nene”) Mrwetyana’s family. I am sure it is going to take much more time than just a month for them to heal from her loss and I can’t even imagine what it is like to lose a child that late in life.
  • Prayers that there will be continued change in Cape Town and all of South Africa for men to step into the roles of love and respect that they are called to by God and that this awful violence against people of the opposite sex will be decreased.
  • Prayers that the end of the semester goes well and that I do not stress about my finals but am able to trust in God’s plan for me instead.

Alright, so that explains some of my recent time here! Again, I am so sorry that this took so long to publish! Luckily there haven’t been any things that haven’t happened since the protests that are significant enough to merit writing about, so this is still the most recent “big” thing that has happened here. This coming week is our last week of classes, and then I will be here for four more weeks after that while the school administers “Finals” to all departments. Hopefully I should have much more free time to catch up on writing blogs during that time, because I only have two tests within those four weeks! Thanks to everyone who read this all the way through, and thank you for your continued thoughts and prayers!

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2 thoughts on “South Africa #5: In the grip of Gender-Based Violence

  1. What an experience. Your post gave clear insight to the issue. Thanks for sharing. We will pray for Nene’s family, and for you as your begin to wrap up your experience in South Africa.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ethan- I am glad you are safe, and also glad you experienced this activism and protests (though sorry for the reasons it started). These experiences will help you have further insight into historic protests and walkouts or shutdowns in the U.S.! Prayers for a solid finish to your semester.

    Liked by 1 person

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