16 Days of Activism: Why attitude is key

File photo: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA).

The international awareness campaign on 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence which is taking place from 25 November to 10 December 2019 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 the country, and the world.

2019 has certainly been another challenging year when it comes to violence in general, and then specifically, gender-based violence in higher education. It was marked by two traumatic incidents: The rape and murder of Media and Film Studies student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Uyinene Mrwetyana; and the murder of University of the Western Cape (UWC) student, Jesse Hess.

These horrific happenings were painful reminders of the pervasive nature of misogyny and patriarchal violence that impedes the freedom of women in South Africa. As in the rest of the country, students, staff members, and stakeholders of the University of the Free State (UFS) showed up en masse in response, dressed in black to demonstrate their outrage at gender-based violence during a silent march on our Bloemfontein Campus in September. The sincerity and fervour of the marchers – women and men – was inspiring.

More than symbolism needed

But the question is: Are these symbolic gestures enough? Should we not be doing more? Abuse is a very physical act – often with dire, physical consequences. 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, this is the colour of mourning and loss. It symbolises not only the loss of life and opportunity that these incidents have caused, but also the loss of trust, innocence, and carefreeness for the wider community and potential victims everywhere.

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

Powerful influencers: Good and bad

The post-school years is traditionally the time when young people often resolve not only what they want to become – in terms of career options – but also who they want to become. It is a time to sort out your approach to life and to other people and finding your own place in it. A time to determine your own values – the things that form the bedrock of who you are. Too often they fall back on the imperfect role models found in their communities and in celebrity circles, where violence and selfish interests are elevated.

How can we break this cycle of bad influences resulting in violence and abuse? How can we interrupt the process of elevating patriarchal and misogynistic role models?

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, tolerance, excellence, diversity, community upliftment, 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 make 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, abstract ideas, and symbolism. We should give them deliberate acts of caring.

Deliberate acts of caring

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

Story 1: A second-year BA Journalism student, Precious Lesupi, decided to use her 21st birthday celebrations 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 who are afflicted with life-threatening and life-limiting conditions. She also encouraged friends and relatives not to buy her gifts, but to rather make donations towards children battling terminal and chronic illnesses.

Story 2: 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 did not stop at just talking about solutions. They got physically involved – through deliberate acts of caring, and in the process, they powerfully counter-acted the devastating impact of abuse and neglect we have become so used to.

Getting involved

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

The power of caring communities

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 – transpiring into real, deliberate acts of caring and kindness.


Professor Francis Petersen is the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Free State.