Silent Protest at Wits

Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

I offered to be the photographer for this event as soon as I saw the posters on campus a few weeks ago. I knew I wanted to be involved with this event, as I had seen a friend’s pictures from last year’s Silent Protest at Rhodes University.

By the time I arrived on the Library Lawns for the handing out of t-shirts on Friday, April 16, it was already drizzling. This didn’t make people run off, they all just whipped out their umbrella’s and continued to queue for their shirts. There were three different shirts being handed out: shirts specifically for rape survivors (those brave enough to wear them); for supporters of the protest (who had to go a step further and have tape over their mouths) and lastly shirts for supporters who for health reasons could not join in being gagged the whole day.  

Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

From what I understand the reason for taping supporters was that they had to endure the burden of being silenced, in their case for a day. Symbolic of the silent struggle that many rape survivors go through. Those who were taped could not take that tape off until later that afternoon, when they would be able to “break their silence.”

At 12.45 all the R U Silent Wits supporters met at Amic Deck for a silent march through the university. 

The march was powerful in its silence. People are too used to loud protests/marches, which makes them somewhat indifferent to them. In this case the silence of the protesters caused more of a stir for onlookers. There were audible murmurs of people asking one another what was going on, wanting to know how they could join etc. The flip side of that were nasty jeers from people who wanted to belittle the protesters. I heard a group of young men laughing as one amongst them shouted “you have sexy ambitions with this thing you are trying to do,” to which I saw a few faces scrunch up in abhorrence.

The final destination was Senate House Concourse, where a few speakers were expected. Rosie Motene spoke on behalf of POWA, a rape survivor from the crowd Tumi shared her experience and Kelly Gillespie, Wits academic, also addressed the crowd. They all managed to resonate with and inspire the gathered protesters. In between the speakers shocking rape stats were read out to the crowd. Things like 100 year old woman rape, 4 year old raped and mutilated… It made the rape statistics we hear about so much more real.

After this was what they called the “die in,” when all in attendance lay on the floor in remembrance of those who had died from rape related violence. It was at this point I began to see reddened eyes and tears streaming down people’s faces. I saw friends tightly holding one another’s hands and boyfriends mustering up courage to lend strong enough shoulders, or just wiping away tears. It was at this point that I stopped taking pictures, lay next to my friend, to hold her hand.

Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

 

The silence of the “die in” was broken by wails from two actresses who began their skit in the middle of the crowd. A moving piece which illustrated the torment rape victims go through and their struggle to speak out.  After the performance those whose mouths had been taped all day could finally “break their silence” by taking the masking tape off of their mouths. This came at the right time as, the debrief thereafter would be the space in which people could reflect on the day and share their experience

Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

.

No media was allowed in the debrief, so I simply went in my personal capacity. It was a very emotional experience. Brave young women and men took heed to the messages to break the silence and shared their stories. I heard stories I will never forget for as long as I live. I heard things that made the stats resonate, that made them real. The sheer numbers in that lecture venue of survivors made me shudder. One must keep in mind there were probably more who were too afraid to speak out to that large body of people.

I was thoroughly depressed when I left that venue. Drained. But I realised that I needed that experience. I needed to know the reality of the situation. I can only hope that the day helped others in the way that it helped me and that the movement continues to gain momentum.

PS**

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