Five years ago I returned to my alma Mater, UCT, to take up a position as a lecturer. It had been four years since I had been on campus. One day, during the first few weeks of my position, I saw him. The young man who had harassed and stalked me during my undergraduate days was swaggering across Jammie Plaza all these years later. The panic and fear that once held a grip on 19-year-old me came rushing back. I was frozen in terror. I don’t know what he was doing on campus or what his connection to UCT is these days but I am stunned that this man continues to prowl the corridors of the institution after all the trauma he put me and several other young women through. In the intervening years I had earned a PhD and a permanent post on campus, but I realised in that moment that no matter what I achieved or how hard I worked I would never gain the freedom to feel safe and protected on campus.
Back in 2003 I was sitting on campus and reading when I noticed a man staring intently at me about a table away from me. I felt uncomfortable and left Leslie social science. As I walked down to my Res, I noticed someone following closely behind me. It was him. It might sound like I was being overly paranoid but there was something very intent and disturbing about the way he was following me and staring at me. I was scared and I wanted nothing to do with this man. Afraid that he would follow me far enough to discover that I lived in a res on campus, I tried to get lost amidst passing groups of people. Then I hung back near the law campus hoping that he would carry on walking and leave me alone.
Instead he walked back to me and asked me why I was sitting there and asked what I was afraid of. I told him I was fine and asked him politely to leave me be. At this he got angry and told me that I don’t need to be afraid. I just told him ‘I’m fine’ but that I don’t want to talk to him. Then to avoid spending any more time in the conversation, I carried on walking. This was the beginning of two years of stalking…
I got down to lower campus and noted that he was still walking two to three metres behind me. I felt it was unsafe to go to my res so I walked to campus protection and told them what was going on. When I described the guy the CPS officers immediately recognised who I was talking about and seemed upset. From talking informally to them I learned that this person was a repeat offender on campus, and more disturbingly, had extended his stalking of a particular young woman to an assault in which he reached up her skirt and touched her genital area. CPS told me, however, that they could do little to stop this person because each case has to be treated separately and has to go through the discrimination and harassment office rather than being handled by CPS like robberies etc. They brought him in to the CPS building to ask him to stop bothering me. At this point he threw an enormous tantrum, screaming and wailing the office. I realised then that he was potentially quite a dangerous person. The CPS officer on duty seemed exasperated. He was powerless to do anything about someone he’d seen harassing and violating women on campus repeatedly. I am very thankful for the support and kindness I received from CPS. If only they had any authority to handle these cases I might have had a better experience at UCT.
This incident was the first in long campaign of harassment by this individual. He approached me in the hallways of the university, in the library, on the shuttle and several times followed me home. I routinely started walking around my res in case he saw me enter and found a way into the building. Every hallway on campus became a site of fear. I particularly hated going to classrooms in basement areas. I was afraid of certain rooms in the library ( the thesis collections in the basement, the photocopy area). With every encounter he became more aggressive. He spoke to me in a way that assumed a relationship that simply wasn’t there. “Why are you being like this to me” he would say. “Why won’t you talk to me”. Then he would start shouting loudly “You are so rude!” “ Why are you treating me like this” I felt like I was having a fight with a boyfriend except I didn’t know this guy at all and had no desire to be anywhere near him. I could do nothing more than simply repeat that I wanted to be left alone before running away as fast as I could. I don’t know how I could have been any clearer. This lasted for about two years off and on. It happened every now and then, not constantly but the fear was there all the time.
Shortly after the first incident I went to the discrimination and harassment office where I was advised against taking him to the UCT court. I was told he was another student – I think a postgrad student but I don’t really know. They told me that I didn’t have much of a case because his behaviour was too close to ‘normal male behaviour’ and they can only deal with each incident separately – i.e. we weren’t allowed to tell the UCT court that he had groped other women and shown a consistent pattern of harassment.
Instead I was advised to apply for a restraining order from the police. Disco helped me fill it in. Then a few months and several incidents later I got a phonecall from Disco asking why I wasn’t at the magistrate’s court. My stalker had contested the restraining order and was sitting there with a lawyer. Nobody had told me to be there. Scruffily dressed and panicked my mother and I scrambled to the courtroom. I had to sit in a small room with him while his lawyer made his case. I was terrified and hated being seated next to him. I had to listen to the lawyer telling the magistrate that his client was just flirting with me like a ‘normal man’. A representative from Disco was there to help me and to his credit he tried his best. I am happy to hear that in the years since this situation the government has changed its policy on restraining orders but at the time you could only get a restraining order against someone you had been in a relationship with. I had no prior connection to my stalker. I learned that day that neither the law nor my institution would stop this man from harassing me and that I just had to deal with his ‘normal male behaviour’.
I got through it and got my degree. I actually did really well despite operating in a constant state of fear. I didn’t get groped and at some point I stopped seeing him on campus. While I made it through, I think someone with less of a support network of family and friends may not have. Compared to many other women and indeed to many of this man’s victims, I got off lightly. The temptation to leave UCT or to stop attending class was big. It felt unfair that this person who didn’t even know was derailing my freedom whilst he was free to saunter around campus and lurk in narrow passageways terrorising women. How could this be right? How could the institution let this happen?
There is a positive side to this. These encounters lent new meaning and purpose to my engagement with feminist theory. I had to question the way we think of ‘normal male behaviour’ and the way we allow men to limit women’s freedoms while policing and silencing women. While I value what I learned and how this process shaped me I believe that no young women should have to deal with this at a place of learning.
I really believe that the process at UCT is flawed and skewed in favour of protecting UCT and protecting purpetrators. During my undergraduate years at UCT male harassment was tolerated and victims were shut down and siphoned off into the magistrates court where they may or may not have achieved a restraining order. When I saw him on campus 5 years later I was shocked because the sighting seemed to confirm the fact that nothing has changed – here he is moving freely, presumably continuing his behaviour. How many women has he harassed? What was he even doing there? A PhD maybe? I was struck with horror when I thought perhaps he was a staff member now. I never got the answers to these questions because, as in every case, when I saw him I ran in fear like an animal. That fear will never go away.
A while back I went back to DISCO and offered to help out and improve the experience of people who experience harassment. I don’t think they fully understood what I meant or registered that I wanted to correct a system that had failed me. In frustration I left it alone. I believe we can build a better support system for women on campus. There are staff members who are willing and able to aid in this process. I’m not sure what the way forward is and must admit to often being to busy or exhausted to follow through on my desire to help prevent this stuff but I hope this story offers one more perspective and one more voice behind the need to stop the culture of silence that others have described.