A restaurant on Wits West campus has started an initiative to empower female students by offering self-defence classes. Rita Berdanis, the owner of Zesty Lemon, says she got the idea after hearing about women who had been victims of violent acts.

“There was all this talk in the news and throughout our communities, but nothing was being done,” says Berdanis. “You’d hear on 702 when they have guests to discuss issues around gender-based harm that boys should be raised differently and that the focus should not be on women defending themselves,” says Berdanis.

Berdanis says she agrees with that solution, but, out of frustration with all the “talk and no action”, she decided to bring in a solution in the meantime.

“As women we have no option but to defend ourselves. As a community at Wits and in society we need to encourage women to empower themselves and to take control of their own realities and not wait on someone else to,” she says. Student attendance has increased with every class, says Berdanis

Ndzalama Schivambu (18), a first-year bachelor of accounting science student, in an interview with Wits Vuvuzela, says: “I decided to come to the classes because it was important to empower myself. Although I’ve never encountered any violent attack. I felt it was important to equip myself to avoid living in fear.”

Phomelelo Napo (18), a first year BCom accounting student, says she is a regular attendee of the classes. “At first I thought they would include a lot of exercise, but they really focus on training the mind as well as basic techniques to use without using too much body weight or energy.”

Berdanis says her decision to empower women stems from personal experience. “Twenty-seven years ago one of my daughters was four months old when some guy tried to break into my house. I was alone with my child and tried to fight back. He eventually left, but the experience traumatised me. I even left the South Africa for 10 years. The experience took over my life for a long time until I realised how I need to take back my power”.

“What we see on campus is a small scale of what happens in the country, where women are not respected and men raise boys who view patriarchy and being misogynistic as normal. This can’t be the order of the day,” she says.