NERVOUS laughter rippled through the lecture hall when Maria Wanyane began her presentation.  The 1st year construction studies students did not expect the Wits sexual harassment officer to mention some of the explicit, derogatory words whose usage can constitute harassing behaviour.

But they appreciated her frankness. “I liked the fact that she was blunt … because we don’t need to sugarcoat it. It’s real”, said Witsie Shanice Pillay.  Some of the students also gasped in disbelief when Wanyane told them that excessive persistence in asking for dates was a form of harassment.  Nkateko Ncube said this was one of the most interesting things she learned from the lecture. “I got to know that there is a difference between flirting and sexual harassment.”

Wanyane also told the students they had a responsibility to ensure that they and their peers create a positive learning environment for everyone by avoiding harassing language and behaviour.  All of the students listened attentively and some took copious notes during the talk, which took place during senior lecturer Angelo Fick’s communication skills class.

A national problem

Fick said that sexual harassment is a problem in South African society and that it also happens at the country’s universities.  “This is the space in which we can guide people’s understanding about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, before they have to learn it the hard way.”  Fick was pleased with his student’s engagement with the topic during the tutorial which followed Wanyane’s lecture.

The students had lively discussions about some of the issues surrounding sexual harassment. These included power relations between lecturers and students, and between students and their classmates who expect reciprocity for favours such as help with assignments.  Almost all of the students Wits Vuvuzela spoke to found the sexual harassment lecture and tutorial interesting and informative.

A waste of time?

One student, however, said the lecture was a waste of time, especially at this point in the term.  “We could have used the time for revising for upcoming exams,” said Mthokozisi Mncwango.  Fick disagreed. “If university education becomes simply about exams, then it’s a failure and a tragedy. It’s a holistic education, about becoming a well-rounded human being.”  He said every student should be exposed to sexual harassment training, whether they were training to be an actuary, a lawyer, a dentist or a drama teacher.

“It’s important to understand that behaviour that you may take to be normal … is, in fact, a violation of somebody else’s human rights.”  Wanyane says she hoped to go into more 1st year classes, so that eventually every Witsie will be aware of sexual harassment.  Her talk comes two weeks after the SRC launched a new poster campaign urging students to speak out about the issue.