The first time I experienced sexual harassment

The year was 1985. I had just turned 17, at university and living away from the first time. I was raised by overprotective parents and hadn’t ever been anywhere or done anything without a family member being present. So, moving away from Phokeng in what is now the North West Province to Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape was a big step for me.

The second challenge was that I was not assimilating very well into university life. The culture seemed too different to what I was used to and the academic demands seemed to onerous. Then there were the regular student strikes, which resulted in strong police presence that made me feel even less secure in my environment.

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I was also getting increasingly worried that these challenges would result in my failing, which would have been disastrous because my parents were paying for my studies and I had a younger brother who was three years younger and needed me to graduate from university on schedule so my parents could focus on educating him. There was no way my parents could afford to pay full university fees for both of us at the same time, so I had to work my way through university on schedule or fall by the wayside.

It was therefore very relieved when one of my lecturers offered to tutor me privately. We agreed to meet at his office and I arrived there at the appointed time.

The first five minutes were fine, as we talked about why I was having problems with his subject and how he could help me. Then he stood up and walked around his desk to stand near me and pulled me on my feet.  To say I was stunned is to put it mildly.

Did I also mention that many 12 year olds I interact with today know more about the opposite sex and how to rebuff unwanted attention than I did at 17? My mind completely shut down when he pulled me into his arms and all I could think about was getting away. So I struggled and shouted and pushed at him until he let me go.

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The man was not amused and he said some rude words to me, some of them in Xhosa, which I did not understand, though I understood the tone. As I grabbed my books and turned to the door, I realised that the door was open and then people were passing by. Sometimes I wonder how that incident would have ended if he had the foresight to invite me to a private place and the door was closed. Would he have let me go when I struggled?

I’d love to say that my lecturer was embarrassed by the event and treated me with respect due to a student from then onwards. But that would not be true.  The incident became a starting point for a campaign to undermine me at every turn and the best way to do that was to attack my school work, where it hurt the most.

He did not give me the opportunity to ask questions in class, even when I raised my hand to attract his attention. Sometimes he spoke in Xhosa during lessons, which means I missed big chunks of information which I didn’t know whether it was useful or not. And he made no effort to indicate that the issue was in the past, so I could relax and focus on my studies. So being the excitable teen I was, I remained afraid of him, which hindered my studies.

For my part, I was the one who suffered silently in shame. I didn’t tell my classmates who were my friends about the incident or explain why I was suddenly persona non grata to that particular lecturer. I did not report the incident to authorities either, though thinking back, there was a lecturer who would have helped me if he knew.

What I did do was study harder, work more closely with my classmate friends so they could ask the questions in class I couldn’t ask. With relief, I passed the subject at the end of the year.

I also got an opportunity to transfer to another university. At the time, it was a less known/respected university, but I was thrilled because I could continue studying this subject in a less hostile environment.

I later learnt that this lecturer regularly had affairs with female students.  Most of the people condemned the students’ actions and said nothing about the lecturer’s actions. But as an adult, I now realise that those female students felt they had little choice in the matter. And if people wanted to sugar-coat their harassment and abuse and call it an affair, what could they do?

I also learnt that this lecturer had daughters and I sometimes wonder how he would have reacted if he learnt that people that he trusted to teach his own children were acting as reprehensibly as he was. Would he have seen a wrong in his actions, if it hit close to home?

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