In what would be her final instruction as the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Naledi Pandor has appointed a task team to investigate gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual harassment in South African universities.
The task team, which will work for a year starting in June, has nine members including a representative from the the South African Union of Students (SAUS).
This follows an open letter written by academics from several universities in March, calling for Pandor to make campuses safe spaces for female students, lecturers, and gender non-binary students.
The letter said: “We would like your special attention to the issues of sexual offences that have become normalised in Higher Education. While universities continually celebrate the fact that, in most universities, women students constitute the majority, they have not followed this achievement with creating an environment that is free from sexual harassment and sexual violence."
'It is also our experience that black women staff members, who have minority and junior status in Higher Education, are under pressure to exchange sexual favours for job security," it continued.
"In the last few years, we have witnessed a number of protests against sexual violence in higher education institutions," it added. "These include the efforts of students protesting under the #RUReferenceList and Rape Culture in Universities banners.”
The letter also asked Pandor to investigate the extent of GBV and sexual harassment aimed at staff and students, create a register of offenders that all institutions of higher education should consult before hiring teaching staff, and “the blacklisting all those who have been found guilty of a sexual offense in order to prevent their joining any institution of higher learning after their guilt is determined.”
The letter added: “In most cases the students’ vulnerability to this kind of offense can be attributed to the dire socio-economic conditions that they are subjected to."
"These are the conditions of hopeless impoverishment which characterises the lives of the majority of families, particularly black families, in our society," it read. "We also wish to highlight an increase in the ‘sex for jobs’ practice that adversely affects women in higher education."
The letter was written almost two weeks after Gugu Ncube staged a naked protest outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Ncube said she lost her job at the University of South Africa (UNISA) after reporting her manager for demanding sexual favours for jobs.
Gender-based violence is rife in South Africa, leading President Cyril Ramaphosa to call it a “national crisis.” Universities and other institutions for higher education are not an exception to the scale of GBV in the country.
Safer Space, an online portal for community safety as well as violence and crime prevention practitioners from government, civil society, and the research community in South Africa, noted, “Sexual violence on campuses in South Africa has been a long-standing issue.”
The portal added: “[Between] 12-13% of students felt unsafe walking around campus at night. This translates to between 334 and 363 students feeling unsafe. Four times more female than male students indicated that they felt unsafe walking around campus at night.”
Pandor met with academics after the letter was published to discuss how the ministry of higher education and training can tackling the issue.
“The meeting agreed that addressing sexual harassment and gender-based harm decisively will allow for a focus on ‘fundamental academic questions’ and restore ‘academic cultures that respect freedom and citizenship of all,'” Pandor said in the media statement announcing the task team.
The task team will help the ministry to create a policy framework for GBV at universities. It will also come up with measures that protect survivors, from reporting cases to ensuring that sexual offenders do not escape justice or are hired by other institutions.
“The vision of the policy framework is that ‘everyone has the right to live, study, and work freely and safely in PSET institutions without any fear of sexual/gender-based intimidation, harassment, abuse, rape, or other forms of sexual/gender-based harm,’” Pandor’s statement said.
Task team member and Nelson Mandela University academic Dr Babalwa Magoqwana told Daily Maverick: “I think it is long overdue. These investigations have been taking place since 2016. So we do welcome the panel, which will be working with the minister in dealing with gender-based violence on campuses in all its types and forms.”
Magoqwana added: “It doesn’t end here, it is now up to the practices of our higher education so we can develop a different culture that can influence the practices and influence the cultures and, ultimately, influence the behaviour that can be welcoming to all in the post-schooling institutions."
"And hopefully, this can influence all in society because we know this forms part of a bigger societal problem,” Magoqwana said.