“Unshouted Courage” in South Africa: The Young Women of the University of the Western Cape

“Unshouted Courage” in South Africa:
The Young Women of the University of the Western Cape

by Evelyn L. Parker, PhD

From the moment I step from an Uber onto the main quad of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) my spirit ignites with joy of a place where the euphony of Afrikaans, isiZulu, isiXhosa, and other languages float through the air. The Ancestors call to me through the drumbeats and even occasional rap lyrics as I make my way from the quad to the Faculty of Arts building. Students from all regions of the Continent create the rhythmic sounds of language as they move through the corridors and down the sidewalks. I am especially amazed at the finger-snapping of young women affirming the hair styles and dress of other female colleagues. My own physicality is affirmed when I see curly, kinky, and straight hair displayed in more colors than a rainbow as well as all shapes and sizes of hips unapologically swinging from side-to-side. While students of all nationalities, ethnicities, sexual identities, and social classes give me an affirming nod if we make eye contact, I am especially intrigued by the young women of UWC who respectfully greet me, a grey-headed female professor who looks foreign on most days. Some of these young women, specifically those in the Religion and Theology Department, have endeared me with accounts of their joys and pains of negotiating UWC campus life as cisgendered or transgendered young woman. Their stories weave a beautiful tapestry of characteristics that include sassiness, savviness, tenacity, courage, resistance, and persistence. I have focused on courage in this blog. By courage I echo Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon’s idea of courage that is “unshouted,” which is to be steadfast and fortitudinous against oppressive and unjust forces/powers on behalf of one’s community. The “unshouted courage” of UWC young women takes center stage for my reflections.

The young women of UWC courageously rose up to purge the campus of all rapists which included a male residence assistant who demanded sex for housing/dorm rooms from first year young women. This incident happened during the night, just hours before a campus memorial service for Jesse Hess, a first-year theology and religion student who was brutally raped and murdered. Jesse’s 85-year-old grandfather was found dead tied up in the bathroom and 19-year-old Jesse was found dead on a bed on August 30th. The rapist killed them both before fleeing their apartment in the Cape Town northern suburb of Parow. Jesse was one of five rape/murder victims of women and girls in Cape Town during the last week of the August 2019 Women’s Month.

The young women of UWC Kovacs residence held the male residence assistant hostage after several young women courageously broke their silence and identified their assailant. The young women sought justice for his egregious crime until the local police were notified and entered the residence hall spraying rubber bullets on the young women until they freed the young man. The UWC women sought after other male students who were identified as rapists. Their act of justice included use of multiple social media platforms as well as identifying and delivering assailants to UWC authorities.

The next day, September 4th, the UWC main auditorium was packed beyond capacity with students, faculty and staff adorning black attire and standing in the aisles and corridors of the auditorium. Those who could not get in the auditorium filled the quad and listened to the memorial serve on jumbo speakers. The anger and frustration were palpable. Young women in the UWC Choir passionately and beautifully sang songs of justice that were familiar to the audience that blended their voices with those in the choir. The student government president, a UWC young woman, spoke powerful words of accountability to school, state, and government authorities to end Gender Based Violence (GBV) on the UWC campus and in South Africa. Her courage to speak on behalf of the student body was audibly affirmed with finger-snapping and “Justice of Jesse” chanting.

The courage of a UWC young woman is no doubt an aspect of the legacy of women committed to dismantling Apartheid in South Africa as well as seeking gender equity on the campus. The UWC Women and Gender Studies (WGS) Department emerged out of gender and anti apartheid activism in the late 1980s. Professors Rhoda Kadalie and Gertrude Fester gave courageous leadership in establishing the Gender Equity Unit that evolved into the WGS Department through their efforts to raise the conscious of the Rector and other UWC campus faculty and administrators about the injustices that UWC women experienced. Professor Kadalie, a Social Anthropologist, expanded her activism beyond UWC through her regular articles in Cape Town newspapers. As an activist, Professor Fester was a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and was charged with treason by the Apartheid government. She was sentenced to two years in prison and spent five months in solitary confinement where she composed the one-woman play Apartheid’s Closet: The Spirit Cannot be Caged in her head because she was denied a pencil and paper. Professors Kadalie and Fester’s legacy lives on. Today the UWC Women and Gender Studies Department and the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice are promoting courageous research, writing, publishing, and teaching about many aspects of justice for women and girls.

What does “unshouted courage” look like when it is embodied in an 18, 19, or 22-year-old UWC cis-gendered or transgendered female student? With this question I extend an invitation to meet young women and girls in Cape Town, South Africa during the 2020 Biennial Consultation of the Daughters of the African Atlantic Fund.

Dr. Evelyn Parker is Susanna Wesley Centennial Professor of Practical Theology at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Parker was named a 2019-2020 U.S. Fulbright Scholar based at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice and the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa, to work on a project titled “Role of Religious Leaders in Preventing and Intervening in Teen Dating Violence in South Africa.” Dr. Parker is a founding director of The Daughters of the African Atlantic Fund and Chair of the 2020 Consultation to be hosted in South Africa on August 8-14, 2020.