UCT Black Academic Caucus backs Equal Education sexual harassment complainants

2018-11-30 17:35
Zackie Achmat. (Brenton Geach, Gallo Images, file)

Zackie Achmat. (Brenton Geach, Gallo Images, file)

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The Black Academic Caucus (BAC) at the University of Cape Town has thrown its weight behind several complainants who gave confidential testimony to the Equal Education (EE) inquiry on sexual harassment.

The inquiry’s report was released on Tuesday and effectively exonerated those implicated.

The women said their accounts were not considered as evidence because they asked for anonymity, while the panel said that their requests for total anonymity meant that the respondents could not be given a fair chance to respond.

The inquiry was instituted by the NGO following a May 18 report in the Mail & Guardian containing allegations of sexual harassment at the organisation, specifically against its co-founder Doron Isaacs. Former EE board chair and activist Zackie Achmat was accused of covering up the harassment. Both men denied the allegations and the organisation appointed an independent panel to investigate.

Read: Sexual misconduct cover-up allegations at Equal Education 'left an indelible scar' – Zackie Achmat

The panel comprised retired High Court judge Kathleen Satchwell, Professor Malose Langa of the Department of Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Professor Rashida Manjoo of the Faculty of Law at the University of Cape Town.

The Women's Legal Centre was brought on board to assist the complainants in the process, while attorneys Cheadle Thompson & Haysom assisted with legal support and services.

Satchwell wrote in the report that the complainants' request for total anonymity infringed on the principle of fairness.

She wrote: "This panel has been presented with only one option: that of absolute confidentiality for the proposed complainants coupled with absolute ignorance for the alleged wrongdoers. This cannot be right. We have considered and had regard to a number of options for ensuring sensitivity in procedure and safety in process. These were not acceptable to the potential complainants. We cannot then preclude access to essential information, deny an opportunity to fully respond, not  allow an implicated person the opportunity to dispute or test any allegation and place this panel in the position of having no opportunity to test and evaluate either complaint or response." 

She said everyone implicated had to be informed of the complaint against them and had to be given an opportunity to test the allegations against them. She said the panel could not "lawfully or properly" receive some of the submissions under these circumstances.

"They cannot constitute evidence in these proceedings at all," Satchwell found.

In the absence of any such "evidence" which the panel could accept, the panel ultimately exonerated those who were implicated, as only their versions could be considered.

The panel said this was unfortunate.

"Professor Langa wishes to stress his regret (with which Judge Satchwell agrees) that this panel was not given the opportunity of advancing the legitimate cause of victims of sexual harassment through full exploration, in a transformational and transparent manner, of complaints, responses thereto, organisation and societal context of exploitation of vulnerable persons."

But Manjoo distanced herself from the report and its findings.

ALSO READ: UN received 54 allegations of sexual misconduct in 3 months

Manjoo said "the report reads like a judgment and makes findings which include exonerating individuals".

She said that while the victims had chosen not to be heard, the statements they submitted, while not being admitted as evidence, was still worthy of the panel's attention. Manjoo also said she was uncomfortable that the authenticity of the documents produced, especially by Isaacs and Achmat, was not tested.

She is expected to release her own report in December.

The Satchwell report was scathing of the Mail & Guardian's report, which was centred around an account by "Jane", who accused Isaacs of trying to force himself on her in 2009. Isaacs disputed the account and Achmat provided Facebook messages and emails which seemed to disprove Jane's account as reported by the paper. Jane declined to give evidence to the panel, and the panel found that Isaacs' version was "plausible".

The authors of the 19 submissions said they were guaranteed anonymity at the outset of the process.

"This is how we understand the essential 'finding' of the Satchwell report: that women who are too afraid to be identified, should be dismissed. Every story, every piece of painfully recounted evidence, every trauma retold for the benefit of justice – was dismissed and ignored. The result? Full exoneration for the accused," they wrote, in a statement issued via the Women's Legal Centre.

They said that those implicated, especially Achmat, hold "significant influence" in the social justice sector and said they risked having their reputations "destroyed" if they spoke out on-the-record.

In a statement, the BAC extended its "solidarity" to the "survivors" who "bravely came forward", and who were "left out of the process entirely".

The caucus called on Equal Education to "acknowledge" the "shortcomings" of the report and to commit to a "fair and just process".

"In a country like South Africa where the sexual and gender based violence continues to be a central and urgent concern, flawed processes like this one need to be seriously challenged. Like other concerned members of society, we await the report of Professor Manjoo and we hope that justice will prevail for the survivors," the caucus said.

Read more on:    equal education  |  zackie achmat  |  cape town  |  gender based violence

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