­Rhodes rape list: Mob justice is not the answer

2016-04-24 15:00

The drug dealer and the rapist are the two most evil criminals.

The drug dealer murders the mind, the family and the community. He is uncaring and has no regard for the damage he leaves behind as he accumulates his lucre.

The rapist is even worse. He murders the body, the mind, the family, the community and- more devastatingly -the soul. It takes years and even decades for rape survivors to recover from their ordeal. Sometimes they never do. The wound remains raw for an entire lifetime.

It is understandable then that the release of a list containing the names of alleged rapists at Rhodes University received such widespread approval. Here were young women taking the fight to the perpetrators and exposing the weakness of the university authorities and the police who were apparently not taking the scourge of campus rape seriously enough.

No longer would they be cowering victims. Rather, they would set an example to women all over the country by leading the battle and not expecting to be done favours by a patriarchal society.

Much like their counterparts in the US, where one in four female students fall victim to sexual by the time they graduate and are repeated failed by the administrations, the Rhodes students were standing up against a phenomenon that is considered a normal part of campus by some of their male counterparts.

The challenge then is to make it abnormal and make life uncomfortable for those who see this act as normal. A US female student initiative called the Girl Code Movement was established to break the silence not only of those who have survived rape but also by those who witnessed the incidents and looked the other way.

An activist quoted by CBS News had this to say about breaking the silence: “If everyone speaks up in these moments, fewer cases of sexual violence will occur. ... At the time of our assaults, there were witnesses before the rapes took place—witnesses that could have stepped in to make sure we were okay, that we were consenting to the actions put upon us,”she said.

This is exactly the fightback against silence and inaction that is being waged by the Rhodes students.

But should their courage in pursuing this cause compel us all to turn a blind eye to the violation of the principle of innocent until proven guilty?

Are we correct to celebrate the public conviction of private individuals without them being afforded an opportunity to state their side of the story?

What precedent are we setting when we agree to suspend the rights of others because their alleged crime disgusts us so much.

South Africa has a harrowing history- which has unfortunately carried into the present - of meting out brutal justice to people to whom a negative label has been attached.

Alleged impimpis who were arbitrarily convicted of “selling out” had burning tyres placed around their bodies and those suspected of practising witchcraft were banished from communities, had their properties torched and in some instances were executed.

In many crime-ridden and badly policed neighbourhoods suspected criminals are subjected to mob justice simply on the basis of more than one person pointing a finger at them.

In many cases very little evidence was required for a convictions. All it took was for an accusation and a flimsy corroboration by one or two more people.

After that mass anger took over. If a case of mistaken identity or wrong accusation was discovered it was just too bad. The “convicted “person was collateral damage in a bigger struggle.

This week’s events at Rhodes University had eerie echoes of this culture of “accuse, convict and punish”. Shortly after the release of the list, which was tweeted and retweeted, a large group of students descended on the residences housing the alleged rapists baying for blood. Nobody knows what would have happened to them had they been found.

Anyone who tried to raise concerns about this public lynching unconvicted individuals they were clobbered over the head with a giant club and told that they were siding with the perpetrators instead of showing sympathy with those at the receiving end.

If you dared raise the point that maybe one of those named on the list could be innocent you would have been told that the fact that this was outweighed by the greater imperative.

It is true that rape and sexual harassment in South Africa are out of hand.

You do not need to wait for the release of the annual crime statistics to find out that this is one stubborn crime that the South African Police Service is failing to tackle with any degree of effectiveness.

You also do not need to see the level of convictions to be dejected about the criminal justice system’s success rate in putting rapists behind bars.

We are just not winning this war, hence the resort to unconventional methods. But reducing a just cause into mob frenzy undermines the very cause itself.

As the philosopher Socrates sagely said more than 2000 years ago:“One who is injured ought not to return the injury, for on no account can it be right to do an injustice.”

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