Student banned for life for leading 'vigilante campaign' against alleged rapist

A South African student accused of organising a vigilante protest that saw men dragged from their halls and accused of rape is fighting permanent exclusion.

Rhodes University banned Yolanda Dyantyi for life in 2017 for ‘a range of unlawful acts’ after she took part in a week-long protest against the handling of rape allegations on campus. She was found guilty of kidnapping, assault, insubordination and defamation and claims her dismissal has left her unable to finish her studies anywhere else.

Yolanda, 23, argues she was not given a fair hearing as she chose not to give evidence without legal representation. The university has repeatedly stated she was excluded for ‘leading’ the ‘vigilante campaign’ that saw male students kidnapped after their names appeared on a list of alleged rapists.

‘Not one [of the accused] has ever faced criminal prosecution,’ the university said in a statement.

Yolanda, who describes herself as a feminist activist, told the protests were a ‘moment of breaking the silence’ for the alleged victims of sexual assault at the university.

This month – after a three year battle – she was granted leave to appeal for her case to be heard in the Supreme Court.

She is appealing for the university’s proceedings to be reviewed, arguing that the verdict of permanent exclusion should be set aside because she had not been able to give evidence at her dismissal hearing.

Her case stems from the #RUReferenceList protests at the university, organised six days after an anonymous list was published on social media containing the names of 11 students, all accused of being rapists. Yolanda denies being the author of the list.

Some 2,000 students joined the protest, where they marched to the male-only halls of residences, targeted those listed and demanded they come with the group and await arrest.

The demonstrations were so large the university was ‘shut down’ for several days as students set up barricades to block vehicles and disrupted classes so no one could attend lectures. Police eventually used tear gas and rubber bullets in a bid to get students to move, with several being arrested during the week of action.

Yolanda claims the protests were about women ‘standing up and saying “enough is enough”.’

The rate of sexual violence in South Africa is among the highest in the world. A woman is murdered every three hours and police record an average of 116 rapes a day, according to the latest data from Africa Check.

In the wake of the#RUReferenceList protests, Rhodes University set up a sexual violence task team to review its sexual misconduct policies and recommend new ones. In total, the Sexual Violence Task Team Report ran to over 100 pages of recommended reforms.

Yolanda argues her permanent exclusion should be reconsidered in light of the reforms. She is backed by Naledi Mashishi, a counsellor at the university at the time of the protests, who said: ‘It is disappointing that the university has prided itself on reforms to address gender based violence yet quietly targeted the very students who called for those reforms.’

Yolanda’s lawyers applied to postpone her initial disciplinary hearing in 2017 because they had to be at a different trial on the university’s proposed date but the university denied the request and Yolanda was excluded without giving evidence.

She said: ‘I wasn’t going to testify without my legal counsel when I had prepared for so long to answer to serious allegations.’

In a 2018 statement, the university said that ‘at least one member of her legal team’ was always present during the hearing and that they proposed a postponement because two members of her legal team would not be able to attend when Yolanda was giving her evidence.

They also claim her legal team proposed dates when the university was shut and that Yolanda was ‘frequently absent’ from the hearing.

Yolanda was denied an internal review and then denied an urgent application for the verdict to be set aside until she finished her remaining exams – she had just two left to go in order to get her degree in Politics and International Relations and Drama.  

‘I come from a working class family. I was raised by my grandmother and I would have been the first to have graduated from university,’ she said. 

In 2019 Yolanda applied for a second time for the university’s proceedings to be reviewed but it was also rejected. On September 17 of this year, the judge granted her leave to appeal for her case to be heard in the Supreme Court.

Rhodes University released a statement ‘welcoming’ the most recent decision out of respect for the law as the ‘cornerstone of democracy’ and condemned sexual violence and violent protest. 

It said: ‘The necessary activism against gender-based violence cannot be used as a cover to operate outside of the Constitution and to violate the rights of other citizens.’

It also stated that when Yolanda was excluded she also had two existing disciplinary infractions on her record including violent and disorderly conduct in 2015 and insubordination in 2016.

Yolanda now writes and campaigns on issues of feminism and against oppression and claims she has been moved by her experience to ‘focus on the bigger picture’. 

She added: ‘My politics would not have allowed me to be ignorant and pretend that I did not know what was going on. 

‘I think for the most part me protesting was me trying to fight for my voice to be heard. To reclaim my body and to feel somewhat powerful in the sense that we were rising up and dissenting and demanding change.’

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