By Luzuko Jacobs
Three or so minutes tick by, slowly, as I stand watching Sue and a woman, whom I later discover is Bettie’s* friend hugging in solid embrace. The air is heavy with deep emotion. They separate only to hug each other once more in an even tighter embrace.
Sue Smailes is the University prosecutor. I am in her office on Bettie’s invitation to talk to me about her rape ordeal.
It is an unnerving moment as I stand frozen next to the door until, finally, the two women break apart. They look each other in the eye, totally absorbed in each other’s worlds and continuing to ignore me for what feels like eternity. They bid each other an emotional farewell and the friend is ready to depart.
All this time Bettie is looking on, wearing a warm smile with her hands clasped and drawn close to her chest. She does not look troubled. In fact there is some inexplicable positive energy about her.
It was during the moment of total exclusion that the full impact of my purpose hit me. For some strange reason, I felt ashamed about my gender. The man in me felt deceitfully guilty. The father in me was torn apart with grief. Suddenly I was not sure if I wanted to proceed with the interview.
I have never come face to face with a rape survivor before. The woman in front of me could not possibly have been violated in this way. She is far too strong, too warm, and too human.
“Oh hi! Please sit down!” Sue commands obligingly, interrupting my musings.
I had come to realise the depth of the solidarity which binds the three women in the pastoral office. As soon as the friend steps out, following another drawn out exchange of pleasantries, Sue turns her attention to me and introduces Bettie.
She had obviously been briefed about me. She is extremely welcoming. I still wasn’t sure how to proceed. After all, I am a man. She had just gone through the most heinous experience at the hands of a man. Why would she ask to speak with me about it?
It didn’t take long to realise that the young woman in front of me is an out-of-the-frame, positive human being clearly made of sterner stuff.
“I am angry. People must know I am angry,” was her opening line.
What followed throughout the interview is a detailed account of what happened to her during her ordeal. It is a harrowing and utterly pernicious experience narrated with unedited honesty. There is no sign of tears teasing the corners of her eyes.
“I never thought that it could happen to me. It took one night when I had a few drinks and got drugged and taken advantage of.” Bettie’s drink was spiked at a popular hang-out in town by a “friendly acquaintance, a sweet boy I met as a first year.”
“He was young to me when I first saw him. I became friendly with him as I mistook him for someone I knew. I would casually greet him when I saw him on campus but we were never close”.
The gruesome detail of the rape left Bettie’s brother, her “champ” who attended the hearing each day to support her, with “blobs of tears on his shirt.” He was her shoulder to cry on.
Bettie’s entire family got involved. Her mom flew down to Grahamstown to give support. After the hearing Bettie went home. “My father hugged me. He spoke with me. He cried, twice.”
As Bettie pulled me into the moment, I felt something crumbling inside. My masculinity deserted me as I took in the dreadful detail of what another human being, a man, could do to another.
He raped her in a darkened room. He had his way with her without her consent. He had drugged her completely unconscious.
Bettie’s story started circulating among students. A friend heard about it but was unaware that Bettie was the subject. So, in a chance conversation he started telling Bettie about a horrible story of a girl who was drugged, dragged into a room and brutally raped.
“I stopped him. I told him that was me.”
He just couldn’t get it and he continued telling the story. I stopped him again, sternly, and told him, “the girl you’re talking about is me.”
His whole demeanour changed. His face changed.
Bettie went through a lot of emotions before deciding to tell her story “for the world to know.”
“At first I did not want to believe that it happened. This was followed by a deep sense of misery when I accepted it. Then there was the crying stage and when it got to the stage of the hearing, it was simply surreal….”
For the first time in the interview, Bettie struggles for words. “It was… I mean….” There is a brief pause. “It was a totally different world.”
“There isn’t a chance that I could have pulled through on my own. Sue and the team have done a lot more than this university thinks. The support that I received was massive, massive!” she says.
“When something like this happens, you expect all these stereotypical questions: how drunk were you? what were you wearing? With Sue, it wasn’t like that. There was a huge amount of support. There was never pressure either way – to drop it or to push it.”
“When it came to the hearing, the Vice Chancellor [Dr Sizwe Mabizela] was there. He spoke to me. He spoke to my mom. He was extremely encouraging.
“Everyone was massively supportive. They really went above and beyond. Sue was available all day and night. You do not really expect that from any University. I started realising that jeez! There is a lot more going on here. These guys are amazing.”
“I came forward and reported the case. I wasn’t even sure of myself. Their investigation was thorough. They prepared and presented a solid, water-tight case and through their effort, care and support, the little bugger is now gone.”
Bettie feels “victorious” with the permanent exclusion from the University of her abuser. We cannot have boys running around with a sense of entitlement. It is good to let them know that actually you are going to get caught, you are going to get nailed and you are going to be out, she says confidently.
Her message to fellow students?
“Well”, she says, “I have three simple things to say. One, the University backs you. Sue and her team went out of their way and even unearthed evidence I never thought was possible. Two, a hard lesson has been learned. I was naïve. You never think that such a thing could happen to you. Thirdly, never think you are invincible. While women must be free to live life as they choose, please look after yourself. If you are going to drink, get a trusted friend to walk you home”.
*Bettie, not her real name, is a post-graduate student and has been at Rhodes, which she calls her second home, for many years. Her abuser was permanently excluded from the University. The interview was conducted at her request to raise awareness and to inspire women to stand up to gender-based violence and to report abuse.
- Luzuko Jacobs is the Director of Communications and Advancement at Rhodes University.