We should respond to gender-based violence with a renewed sense of ubuntu

Humanity and deliberate acts of kindness can turn symbolic gestures into action, argues Francis Petersen 

November 24, 2019
Stop violence
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The United Nations’ annual international awareness campaign, 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, takes place from 25 November to 10 December. The campaign provides an appropriate opportunity for higher education institutions to reflect on a crucial issue that is touching the lives of so many women, including students and staff members, across South Africa and the world. 

This has been another challenging year when it comes to violence in general, and specifically gender-based violence, in South African higher education.

It was marked by two traumatic incidents: the rape and murder of a media and film studies student at the University of Cape TownUyinene Mrwetyana; and the murder of University of the Western Cape student Jesse Hess

These horrific killings were painful reminders of the pervasive nature of misogyny and patriarchal violence that impedes the freedom of women in South Africa.

In response, students and staff members at the University of the Free State showed up en masse to a silent march on our Bloemfontein campus in September, dressed in black to demonstrate their outrage at gender-based violence. The sincerity and fervour of the marchers – women and men – was inspiring. 

But the question is: are these symbolic gestures enough? Should we not be doing more?

Abuse is a physical act with dire consequences, both physical and emotional. Apart from all the discussions, demonstrations and denouncements, is there not something we can do to physically fight this scourge? 

It is significant that demonstrators across the country were wearing black. Traditionally the colour of mourning, in this context it symbolised not only the loss of life from these incidents, but also the loss of trust and innocence of our young students and potential victims everywhere.

There was a sad irony in seeing so many young people in mourning mode. After all, a person’s university years are supposed to be some of the happiest. It is a heartbreaking reality that gender-based violence can turn it into the most traumatic.

I have often said that a university or any other institution of higher learning should be a microcosm of what our society should look like. Not because it is perfect and never makes mistakes, but because it is founded on principles of equality, excellence, diversity, community support and forward thinking – striving for social justice in everything that it does.

While students are on our campuses, we have a unique window of opportunity to influence and guide these young people at a time when they are establishing their value system and making crucial decisions about the rest of their lives. 

And to really play our part as positive influencers, we should give them more than just theory, rhetoric and symbolism. We should give them deliberate acts of caring.

Two stories transpired at UFS this year that reminded me of the powerful effect these deliberate acts of caring can have.  

A second-year journalism undergraduate, Precious Lesupi, decided to use her 21st birthday as an opportunity to give back to the communities around her. Not only did she spend the day with children at the Sunflower Children’s Hospice in Bloemfontein, she also encouraged friends and relatives not to buy her gifts, but to make donations towards children battling terminal and chronic illnesses.

Meanwhile a lecturer in our department of architecture, Hein Raubenheimer, reached out to a colleague who had just acquired a plot of land in an informal settlement. He got other lecturers and students involved by initiating an interdisciplinary research project and a building supplies donation drive in order to build a beautiful, eco-friendly home for his grateful colleague.   

These two Kovsies (the nickname for UFS students and staff) did not stop at just talking about solutions, they got physically involved through deliberate acts of caring, and in the process, they powerfully counteracted the devastating impact of abuse and neglect we have become so used to. 

It is an approach that can extend so much further than interpersonal relationships.

On a community level, it can culminate in an attitude of looking out for one another’s interests. The practical outflow of this is that people will get involved when they see someone caught up in an unhealthy relationship, venturing into a dangerous area or being harmed in some way. Because they truly care about one another. It is about reaching out and arming one another – not only with information and encouragement, but also with physical support.

In the words of American author and organisational behaviour expert, Margaret J. Wheatley: “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”

I believe that our response to the flood of violence and indifference that threatens to engulf our higher education campuses should be to fight it with a renewed sense of ubuntu (humanity), manifesting in real, deliberate acts of caring and kindness.

Francis Petersen is rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State.

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