NWU 'could be liable for harassment damages'

2016-06-21 13:18


Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Johannesburg - North West University could be taken to court for its apparent failure to address allegations that a senior staff member sexually harassed 14 women, two academics have said.

At least 14 women had tried to complain, but a lecturer who helped them said that, due to a lack of proper policy and procedure, the complaints were dead in the water.

Political science professor Amanda Gouws, of Stellenbosch University (SU), said the Employment Equity Act and labour laws made it clear that institutions should have a policy.

She had been part of efforts over the past 20 years to address sexual harassment on campus and chaired SU's sexual harassment advisory committee.

The university had a vicarious liability, which meant the rector could not say he did not know such things were going on, said Gouws.

Sexual harassment policy

It “should have a sexual harassment policy. There is a whole spectrum of things that you can lay a complaint on, including touching, fondling, unwanted remarks, and a display of materials that create a hostile environment”.

Gouws said SU had dealt with six complaints of sexual harassment this year. This number was increasing because of a greater awareness of what sexual harassment entailed.

The university had an equality office where staff and students could complain about unfair discrimination.

Failure to address this could land the university in court, she said.

Gouws said a sexual harassment policy should protect against victimisation. There should be someone who championed the policy and an awareness campaign, especially among men, of what constituted inappropriate behaviour.

These awareness campaigns had to be repeated often because of new students coming in.

Gouws said students often learnt a culture of objectification of women in male residences.

Legal claims

Lisa Vetten, of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, said the university’s failure to pursue the investigation, despite there being 14 complainants, could open it up to legal claims.

“You could, for instance, claim damages if you spent medical fees, or lost out on job opportunities, or stayed away from work (due to sexual harassment),” she said.

Vetten, however, emphasised that “you don’t have to prove psychological trauma to say it was wrong. The university did not create a workplace or education environment that you would want to work at, and they didn’t do what they were supposed to (by law)”.

Even if the complainants were too scared to give their names, the university could still have spoken to the person concerned, and made it clear that their behaviour was wrong, sent out memos, or held a workshop.

She said the NWU’s procedure was too vague, which made it difficult to act on.

“That’s why sexual harassment flourishes. It becomes a behavioural norm.”


Vetten said sexual harassment had serious effects on women, including that it made going to work unpleasant

“It poisons a significant amount of time in your day. If you’re in a relationship with someone (else), women are often unsure if they should tell their partners or not, so you end up sitting with a secret, which does things to your relationship.”

She said people would rearrange their work to avoid the harasser, like skipping lectures or events where the person would be.

“It has implications for professional advancement, and can put you in a situation of constant anxiety because you have to deal with that person.”

She said because it was so difficult to report, people became complicit.

“People know it’s wrong, but if they say something, they fear losing their job.

“If you’re in a situation where you know something is wrong, but people behave as if it’s right, it gives a conflicted feeling to people. They feel like they’re complicit or collusive in some way. It is bad to have to live with that.”

Sexual harassment was often treated as something trivial due to the high levels of rape in South Africa, but it affected people’s lives, their marks, or careers.

News24 on Monday reported that the academic allegedly touched women inappropriately and forcibly tried to kiss a female member of staff.

- Read more: 'Untouchable' NWU lecturer retires amid sexual harassment claims

He announced he would be retiring a few months early due to health reasons. He could not be named on legal advice.

Even though 14 women laid complaints, they did not take these further because they feared victimisation. The university said it was aware of allegations against the man, but said it could not find any substantiation to pursue them.

The academic told News24 he often gave people hugs, but nobody had ever told him it was "unwelcome".

Staff who had tried to bring sexual harassment charges against him believed he decided to leave before such charges caught up with him.

Read more on:    north west university  |  mahikeng

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.