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Jumping on the violence bandwagon

It has been a week since the death of a second-year student at Rhodes University and the community, of which I am a part, is still trying to come to grips with the incident.

We were all still trying to understand the scary fact that one of our own was shot dead in a residence, with supposedly state-of-the-art security equipment, before the bandwagon brigade rolled in. Just as it did, hundreds of students and commentators were at the ready on social media to condemn and pass their judgments before the facts were even pulled from the water.

While members of Amanda Tweyi's family mourned the sudden loss of their daughter, sister, granddaughter and mother, speculation as to what the alleged murder-suicide meant for us and society trended on every social network possible. Students and alumni were outraged that Rhodes had broken its promise to us of a safe temporary home. Next was outrage that a person could walk around with a gun, condemning the gun owner as a violent monster before the facts were more than speculation. Finally, it was absolute outrage at men, at another horrific incident of gender-violence and its counterpart: victim blaming. Tweyi very quickly became the symbol for any bandwagon wanting a chance to speak up about it.

Tweyi was found dead with a gunshot wound under her armpit in the male residence Cullen Bowles at around 6am on 27 April. When Grahamstown police responded to the alleged shooting, they found Tweyi's body next to 34-year old, Nkosinathi Nqabisa, with a bullet wound believed to be self-inflicted. He is believed to have been her boyfriend or as the vice-chancellor, Dr Saleem Badat put it, "she either had a relationship [with him] or was in the process of terminating a relationship". Nqabisa was from King Williams Town, which was also Tweyi's hometown.

The details of the shooting remain unclear but soon every student and commentator became a top investigating officer, detailing their guesswork on Twitter. Before the police had even identified the male body found at the scene, a student living across the road could quite confidently say that the man was the victim's boyfriend and she had been cheating on him with another man (whom he predicted was the resident of the room in which the incident took place).

Searching for facts from any source other than the police was a case of sifting through allegations that bordered on defamation. I watched the speculation unfold around me on every platform. There seemed to be three responses to the murder: gender-violence is a scourge and Tweyi was its latest victim; gun violence in South Africa is outrageous; and Rhodes University should take responsibility for her death.

Police suspect that the Nqabisa was Tweyi's boyfriend and had shot her in what appeared to be a love triangle. While they opened an inquest docket for the murder, the incident was termed a murder-suicide. Soon after, vice-chancellor Badat, the Student Representative Council (SRC) and gender activist groups called it "another incident of gender-based violence".

While gender-based violence is an epidemic in this country which needs both education and a strategic course of action to be eliminated, it was too early and the incident not yet investigated enough to name it as a gender-based crime. With no other details of how and why she was shot, people had already condemned the incident. Sure, a girl was shot by a man and police suspected it was premeditated, but the only evidence that has come out thus far was that both students were found dead with gunshot wounds and a firearm. There was no evidence as to what actually transpired in that room in the early hours of the morning.

Students then speculated that because Tweyi was found in another man's room, she was cheating on Nqabisa, which was why he murdered her. This only added fuel to fire from gender activists who accused people of victim-blaming Tweyi for her own murder.

I should mention here that I have no dispute with the possibility of gender-based violence; I myself have a history of working with the Gender Action Project at Rhodes. I just find it hard to believe that any person can condemn an incident and charge a person as guilty of gender-based violence before the facts have surfaced. Even worse were those who claimed that Tweyi was responsible for her own death. No facts were present, so surely both bodies were innocent until proven guilty?

The next argument which arose was around gun ownership. Nqabisa, who was suspected of the murder-suicide, was painted as a violent gun owner and the gun debate once again came to the fore.

It was a similar narrative to that which has become common since murder accused Oscar Pistorius shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of February 14 last year. The immediate response was one of sympathy for Steenkamp and Pistorius, who claimed that he mistook her for an intruder. The tone of the country soon changed after he was accused of premeditated murder and painted as a violent and careless man. Just like that, the entire country thought they were Judge Thokozile Masipa on the case, ready to condemn him guilty before it was proven.

And then, during Tweyi's memorial, came a fourth reaction to the incident, one I found completely inappropriate.

The campus chapel was packed to capacity and included a delegation of Tweyi's family and her two-year old son. One family member opened her tribute to Tweyi saying, "I knew when she came to Rhodes, we would have to get all dressed up nicely and drive to Rhodes University. I just didn't think it would be for her memorial". Next, her friends reminisced about her smile, her sense of humour, and her unconditional love for her son. It was the first time that Tweyi was mentioned as human, a person who had a smile and a son rather than just a symbol of another horrific crime.

Then Professor James Gambiza, who is warden of Kimberly Hall where Tweyi dined every day, got up to talk on behalf of the university. He proceeded to say how difficult HIS job was in telling the family that a Rhodes student died. He continued with a speech that can be summed up as "this is the future you will get if you come to Rhodes", followed by a brief statement which implied "too bad Tweyi couldn't experience that". No recollection of Tweyi as a student even made it into his speech. Troubling as it may be that Rhodes attracted a lot of negative press with students, parents and alumni questioning the efficacy of the security and inter-visiting rules at Rhodes, this was the wrong time to try to sell the university professor.

What remains then is that Tweyi is remembered as a symbol or a set of symbols, not as a person. The South African legal system is built upon the premise of innocent until proven guilty and yet it strikes me that the death of a 20-year old student can mark another person as guilty of gender-based murder without all the facts in hand.

The narrative that followed Tweyi's death is just a minute representation of the narrative that is taking place with the Pistorius trial. Excuse me for making the observation, but who died and made you the judge with no facts or qualifications?

Emily Corke is in her third year of studying journalism and politics at Rhodes University. She is the news features editor for the student newspaper The Oppidan Press, a reporter for Grocott's Mail in Grahamstown and an Eyewitness News correspondent.