University of Cape Town march: #WeSayEnough

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

Last week, an estimated 3000 members of the University of Cape Town community marched under the banner of #WeSayEnough. The march was a protest march, as these things typically are – in this case, a protest against the sexual and other violence against (particularly) women in South Africa. I joined the march, and I suppose this column is my attempt to explain why I did so.

Some of you might think this needs no explanation. Perhaps you routinely engage in the spectrum of activities that range from voting in online polls, signing petitions, putting plastic rhino noses on your cars, or donating time or money to some cause or other. But my starting point would be (or, perhaps “would have been”) to point out that the last two are different sorts of interventions than the first three. Giving time and money seems easier to categorise under “doing something”, rather than being simple liberal breast-beating.

Those who, like me, do think it needs an explanation might talk of slacktivism, desktop activism, or clicktivism. Even though this protest took place on foot instead of behind a desk, in academic garb or white t-shirts with protest slogans, one could ask what it might accomplish for all of us to assemble to say “enough”. Sure, we’ve all had enough, you might say, and everyone already knows it.

You might even say, as I did in my last column last week, that these actions aren’t likely to change the minds of the perpetrators of violence. But even if that’s true, I’m glad that we marched.

First, because the signal of solidarity that 3000 marchers with placards and songs send is a far stronger signal than a progress bar on a website, indicating that you want to save a rhino. I’d like to think that at least some victims of sexual violence participated in or were aware of the march, and saw that they aren’t forgotten.

This show of solidarity might comfort, which is only a trivial thing if you think our emotional states irrelevant. I remember thinking during the march that critics of these sorts of protests would most likely not also boycott funerals. Of course, funerals are not typically protests, but they are largely symbolic events, just as this march was. For someone to ask at a funeral “what’s the point? What is this going to change?” would not, I’d imagine, go down too well. We understand that the point it solidarity, and so it was with the march on February 20, 2013.

Second, as our Vice-Chancellor noted in his address to the marchers, we marched to insist that we’re not happy with this level of violence becoming expected or normalised. We marched to say that we won’t be silent as new (and ever lower) expectations of security are spoken of as if they were an acceptable consequences of living in South Africa. Or, more specifically, of living as a woman in South Africa.

We marched because it should concern us that the Oscar Pistorius media extravaganza has allowed us to forget Anene Booysen, and that during the four days of courtroom action in the Pistorius bail hearing last week, it’s likely that more than 400 women would have been raped (if the one-every-four-minutes statistic is accurate).

So much for our Delhi moment, then, as many South Africans seem to have moved on to having an O.J. Simpson moment – with the focus again on a compromised hero than on another dead woman. We marched, in other words, to remind each other that this is not normal, and should never be treated as if it is.

Third – again, as noted by Dr. Price, we marched to tell the government that they have betrayed the social contract. The criminal justice system can be improved, and NGO’s like Rape Crisis better supported. Funding could be made available to universities so as to train social workers, and also to support research in areas that could help us better understand and address this toxic masculinity and patriarchy that allows for the normalisation of sexual violence.

But mostly, and finally, I marched because of the energy that a crowd can generate. Columns, petitions and speeches can reach people, sure – but thousands of singing and chanting people, united in common purpose, generate a passion that might have a lasting effect on a larger number of people. And before anyone accuses me of an unreasonable level of idealism, I’m talking about the people who were there, rather than those who heard about it.

The people who were there were receptive to what Dr. Price and the other speakers had to say, and they were committed to doing what they could to minimise sexual violence, and to help the victims of it. And what they – especially the students – heard did offer strategies that will be effective, even if each of us can only make a small difference. Each of them, in this case, were the majority of the crowd, and these students were given some challenging assignments.

They were reminded that they need to criticise and ostracise their friends who commit even the slightest violence against their partners. They were reminded that sex is not the guaranteed outcome of a date, and that they should not let their friends believe it is, because that belief is likely to contribute to date rape. They were reminded that men of integrity need to be completely sure that their partner consents to sex, and that the language of boasting about “conquests” after the fact constitutes an unacceptable objectification of their sexual partners.

I think that solidarity is important, and that refusing to treat sexual violence as normal is important. The fact that the continent’s premier university takes this stand sends a message to government, and I think that’s important. Lastly, words like those above, in the context of a receptive audience such as the one we generated, can make a difference. And that is why I marched.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.