By Kyla Hazell
Grahamstown community members and Rhodes students joined forces today to protest the alleged rape of two learners by a teacher at George Dickerson Primary School.
According to Stuart Lewis, administration officer for the Gender Action Project (GAP), the family of the 7-year-old female rape survivor opened a case with the police three weeks ago. The incident was brought to the attention of the school, but the accused teacher remained in his post.
The girl’s younger brother was admitted to hospital on 25 April. He had been raped the day before.
Protesters gathered outside George Dickerson at 7am determined to remain throughout the school day. The protestors held placards that read “Stop child rape at this school” and “Teaching rape is not part of the syllabus”. They shouted “Protect our children” and “Suspend the rapist” while asking of the school “What are you waiting for?” People walking by craned their necks as they passed and children arriving for school lent against the fence watching the protest with wide eyes. Some joined in the shouting.
Lauren O’Brien, a protester and GAP vice-chair, said that she hoped the teacher would finally be suspended pending investigation. “They [the school] have known about this now for a while and have done nothing. We initially put off taking action like this, but now it is clear they are not willing to do anything unless we do,” she said.
The protest grew as residents living nearby arrived to offer their support. Community member Thuli Veliti said she had heard about the protest on Grahamstown Radio and come to join in. “This thing of raping children must stop. We must be strong and make sure that it stops,” she said.
Nola Elliot, another Grahamstown resident, said she had heard the cries from her home and was trying to organise more protesters. “We are here in support,” she said. “He [the accused] has got to go. This is a primary school. These are young, vulnerable children.”
Motorists driving by on their way to work hooted in support. Amirah Kolia, Rhodes Student Representative Council (SRC) International Affairs Councillor, held a placard that read “Hoot against Rape”. She said that almost every private car passing had hooted and waved their fists. She and Silvanus Welcome, SRC Vice-President External, said they had heard of the protest when the topic “went viral” on Facebook and Twitter last night.
“The rapist needs to be suspended and I hope he gets the sentence he deserves,” said Welcome. “Justice must be served to the fullest extent possible.”
Kolia added that she wanted an investigation of the school. “It can’t be happening to just that little girl,” she said.
As police arrived to observe the protest, the demonstrators broke into song, calling for the protection of the rights of South African children and dancing on the street. Local activist Nomalanga Mkhize said: “We want you to protect our children. We are asking the police to do their job. There have been too many complaints. Where have the police been?”
She demanded also where the prosecutors and district office for the education department had been. “Children do not make up stories about rape,” she said. “We need to take it seriously.”
Mkhize said that the protesters were frustrated with the slow response from police. “We want police to investigate everything as quickly as possible so we can resolve what has been happening here,” she said.
Not all community members were fully in support of the protest. A local community leader, Rhodes graduate and school principle who identified himself as Mr LD Meyer arrived on the scene and expressed concern over the labelling of people who had not yet been proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. “One must also remember that if he is proved innocent there is pain and suffering that his family would have gone through as well,” Meyer said. “I am here in support of the young people and I do not want to interfere, but I have observed inside that the kids are petrified because this is unfamiliar.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by some of the school teachers who shouted at protesters through the fence “Keep quiet, you guys aren’t doing anything”. In a later confrontation between staff and demonstrators the teachers expressed that the protesters needed to leave the school vicinity as they were “disrupting the operations of the school”.
The district office later arrived with a mandate to suspend the teacher, who was suspended. The teacher did not leave the school premises before the end of the school day, however.
DISCLAIMER: Michelle Solomon is both editor of The Oppidan Press and chair of the Gender Action Project (GAP).