Toyi-toyi: Using Song and Dance to Protest Rape Culture

The views expressed in this piece represent those of the author alone and are not necessarily endorsed by the Fulbright-mtvU program.

The mission of my project is to interview, document and collaborate with artists involved in feminist activism. However, part of being an mtvU grantee is not only working on my project but also living and experiencing the culture and daily life of the community in which I am residing in. With that I want to talk about the student protests against campus rape culture that occurred during my stay at Rhodes University. Rhodes University is hosting my Fulbright-mtvU research about the intersection of Hip Hop and feminism.  As a part of documenting instances of feminist activism, I would like to compare two responses to rape culture on college campuses – one in South Africa and one in the United States.

Rape culture refers to a society in which rape is pervasive and normalized as a result of societal attitudes regarding gender and sexuality. The Association of American Universities  (AAU) conducted a Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct in 2015 across 27 universities, which indicated that 23.1% of female students experienced sexual assault or sexual misconduct. Rates of reporting sexual misconduct to campus officials were low, ranging from 5%-28%. These statistics suggest that university campuses foster a rape culture.

One night while at Rhodes University, located in Grahamstown, South Africa, I heard what sounded like cheering and clapping from my bedroom –it lasted throughout the entire night. Rhodes University was usually a quiet place in the evening, but not tonight. I didn’t know it at the time, but later found out that it was a protest, and it had only just begun.

South Africa has among the highest rates of public protests in the world, perhaps it’s because their toyi-toying, the act of picketing through song and dance, brings unity through encouragement and expression – because for as long as the protests went on, the singing and dancing didn’t end.

Students toyi-toying at the #RUReferenceList protest.

Officially, the protests lasted for an entire week. Classes were shut down.

Students were arrested. In conjunction with the Student Representative Council (SRC), students launched their version of the #chapter 2.12  protest that had started in Stellenbosch. Students hung signs with quotes from staff responding to allegations of sexual assault on campus that were perceived as unempathetic and inefficient.

Without much hesitation, management took down all the signs. Expecting this, the students promptly posted the signs again, only to have them taken down, again. Removing the provocative signs demonstrated an unwillingness to talk about the broken system for reporting sexual assault plaguing the campus.

Students at Rhodes University had exhausted all means, it seemed, and since the systems in place on an institutional and legal level had intentionally failed them, drastic measures were taken.  A list of alleged rapists (both currently attending, and graduates of Rhodes) was anonymously published on Twitter and Facebook, with a simple description, that latter became the symbolic title of the movement, “#RUReferenceList ”.



Posters and shirts created at Rhodes that challenge rape culture.
Students gathered outside of the theater department deciding on a plan of action to move the protests forward effectively.

Hundreds of outraged students went to the residences of those whose names had appeared on the reference list, demanding answers from them as to why they were listed. In response, Rhodes management put the accused students in safe houses to protect them from the protestors.

A more broad timeline of events can be accessed here, and #Disrupt a documentary compiled about  the protests can be viewed here . The rest of this blog post focuses on connecting the discussed themes with my own experience at FSU.

Rhodes University students creating barricades in the roads to shut down the university until changes are made to the policy on sexual assault cases.

I could not help but to compare what I witnessed at Rhodes University to my experience as a student at Florida State University in the United States.  While I was at Florida State University, the issue of campus rape culture was epitomized when star quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of rape.  There was hardly any investigation of the charges, and no action was taken until a year after Winston was accused.  The police officer in charge of the case even discouraged the woman from reporting the rape, saying that she would be “raked through coals” if she filed the charges, because the football centric student body at FSU worshipped Winston.  These injustices/discrepancies of due process have been well documented in popular culture.

However, dissimilar to the #RUReferenceList protests, FSU students lacked solidarity, morale, and consensus.  Some were outraged by the way the investigation was swept under the rug, while other students stood in solidarity with Winston believing that such a talented football player could do no wrong.

Protests against rape culture at FSU, comprised of maybe 30 people, on a campus of about 40,000 students.  Rhodes, a much smaller university of around 7,000 students had a much higher turnout of protesters, with hundreds of students. Whereas the #RUReferenceList protests were aimed at systematic change, those at the FSU “Rape Culture Awareness Week” were aimed at raising general awareness of the presence of rape culture on campus, but didn’t have any definitive goal (like demanding policy changes).

I feel as though I am witnessing an international tipping point, where people can no longer be silent about the rape culture they experience, and as a result, changes are being made to institutional policies that uphold rape culture.

Recently, there have been significant, pivotal responses from the members of the United States cabinet regarding the prevalence of sexual assault on university campuses.  Vice President Joe Biden declared that he would like to take away federal funding from universities that mishandle and under-report sexual assault cases. Cabinet members refuse to visit universities where campus officials demonstrate incompetence at addressing instances of sexual misconduct.

In my upcoming blog posts, I will include a video interview with Nandi Jakuja, a DJ who was in the front lines of the #RUReferenceList protest, and rapper Miss Celaneous.

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