SOLIDARITY: Wits students protest against rape and sexual violence in the 2016 Silent Protest. Photo: Mokgethwa Masemola

SOLIDARITY: Wits students protest against rape and sexual violence in the 2016 Silent Protest.
Photo: Mokgethwa Masemola

“We believe you!” That is the over-arching message of the silent protest against rape and sexual violence that took place on Wednesday at Wits.

“If you have never been believed. If someone has tried to undermine you saying ‘I have been violated’ and try to question whether it constitutes violation or not, you need to know that the number one aim behind the silent protest is to say ‘we believe you’,” said the Silent Protest project coordinator Limpho Kou.

The Silent Protest has served as a campaign where women, and now men, can speak out about rape and sexual assault.

“This protest creates the conditions where people feel safe and held in order to tell their most closely-guarded secret,” said founding member of the Silent Protest and the Aids Healthcare Foundation’s advocacy manager Larissa Klazinga.

According to Klazinga, the protest was born at Rhodes University in 2006 to support “Khwezi”, the woman who publically accused Jacob Zuma, then deputy president of the ANC, of rape. About 80 young women gathered at Rhodes with Khwezi to speak out against gender-based violence. Zuma was later acquitted of rape in the High Court.

Since then, the protest has spread to other campuses in the country and is now an international movement. The protest also expanded to include men who have been sexually-violated.

In light of recent protests such as #RememberKhwezi, #IAm1in3, #NakedProtest, #RUReferenceList, the silent protest in 2016 “can’t be business as usual, we can’t ignore everything that is happening,” said Kou.

In response to these movements, the silent protest was a week-long campaign this year with documentary screenings, talks and public exhibitions of the female body on campus. The advancement of student protests over the past year has made the organisers of the silent protest question their portrayal of the victim and the significance of silence.

As such, the organisers have also introduced the blowing of whistles on the day of the protest to “introduce a certain level of disruption”, said Kou. Following the #RUReferenceList and #NakedProtest, the 2016 silent protest at Rhodes will focus on disrupting the institution and the powers that be.

“We can’t get away from the fact that there was another silent protest two weeks ago which made the whole nation take stock of who our leader is and where we are as a country,” said Klazinga referring to anti-rape protesters disrupting Zuma’s speech at the Independent Electoral Commission in Pretoria.

The value of the silent protest remains its ability to serve not only as a platform for men and women to break their silence on rape and sexual violence, but also its status as an incubator for activists who have shaped the feminist discourse in the country.

“The women’s movement that we’ve been able to build has begun to build a new kind of a completely different feminism in South Africa and the silent protest is a part of that,” said Klazinga.