The story of senior Wits drama lecturer Tsepo wa Mamatu allegedly fondling and sexually harassing students, and even raping one of them, has focused many people’s attention on what constitutes as an improper relationship between a lecturer and a student.

On Twitter particularly, former students of the accomplished actor, director and playwright have spoken about how wa Mamatu allegedly used his position as lecturer to pressure students into sexual acts under the guise that it was for the benefit of their education.

Tweets from the account of former Wits student Mary Straub (@merrystrwberry) have been frequent and detail her experiences in the Drama department.

Yesterday a tweet from the account read: “We were told we are brilliant, but our unwillingness ‘to go all the way’ would cost us marks.”

In reply to Straub’s question  as to whether sexual abuse at Wits had become institutionalized among lecturers, a tweet from journalist Katherine Child (@katthechild), read: “Yes, and a history of turning a blind eye. And re-hiring perpetrators students had spoken out about”.

Wits’ Head of Communications, Shirona Patel (@shirona37), defended the university’s efforts to protect students, saying in a tweet: “Wits is doing all it can- it never covers up these issues- need as much evidence as possible”.

In a speech he gave at the Wits Great Hall last year, Nobel Laureate and celebrated author, JM Coetzee urged more male students to become teachers, and said that “it will be good for society in general, particularly at this time in history when men who enjoy working with children are suddenly under so much suspicion.”

What the tweets have not answered, and a question Coetzee implies, is whether an emotional connection between teacher and student is possible in the times we live in, especially between male lecturer and female student?

Wa Mamatu, as a lecturer in a small department, had the opportunity to shape the development of his students on an individual basis, a type of impact rarely found in larger departments.

The close interaction between lecturers and students in smaller settings creates an ideal environment for highly focused monitoring of student development. It’s an environment that has the ability to remove the power imbalances between students and lecturers. It’s what could be called a professional intimacy, one where the teacher can positively influence the student. A beautiful paradox when done right, a shame when done wrong.  But how are students ever to know when it’s wrong?

Like many others who misuse their power against students, wa Mamatu seems to have blurred the boundaries and used that intimacy for personal gain, turning what could have been a fruitful partnership into a show of power and dominance.

However, a stronger inter-student relationship between female students spanning generations, able to warn and protect each other from sex pests, seems to have emerged ‘organically’ on Twitter and is filtering onto campus as a result. Could this be social media’s answer to violent patriarchy?

 

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