DITEBOGO TSHAKA AND KOKETSO NGWENYA
On 16 October a group of students and volunteers at the Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender (CSA&G) held a demonstration against a senior staff member who has been accused of harassing, manipulating and intimidating volunteers and staff members of the centre in order to solicit sexual favours.
The silent protest was intended to represent the perceived silencing of the persons who brought claims forward against the accused senior staff member.
The senior staff member is facing allegations that include harassing and manipulating students for sexual favours, threatening student volunteers and staff members for informing volunteers that he is married, offering student volunteers jobs and promising them international trips to solicit sexual favours, spreading rumours about student volunteers who reject his offers and making arrangements to fire them from the Centre, among other things. During the demonstration, the demonstrators held placards that represented a timeline of events from the time the matter was reported to the Centre’s management.
Perdeby sat down with four of the eleven individuals who had laid formal statements against the accused. Three of them are volunteers and one of them is a staff member at the Centre.
On 4 August a group of students and volunteers at the CSA&G held a meeting with the centre’s director, deputy director and another staff member to talk about the various experiences they had had with the accused.
“During that occasion many people brought up some of the unwanted sexual advances this person has made on them and the inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and his attempts to manipulate people through money and overseas trips and as well as the threats and intimidation of certain staff members,” recalled the first volunteer who wished to remain anonymous.
She explained further, “Maybe not everyone who was present had experienced some kind of sexual advances but they witnessed it. They witnessed him scouting for young girls, they witnessed him lying to young girls, offering things — a lot of inappropriate behaviour. So that’s what we spoke about in the first session and because it was so serious they decided to escalate it and they took it to HR. Then they gave us feedback that…we’d be contacted to give statements”.
During the demonstration, the Director of CSA&G, Mary Crewe, addressed the students to give them an explanation. She stated several times, “My hands are tied, I have tried to take the matter to relevant parties without any response. I have emailed Mr [Makgabo] Sekobelo (the Deputy Director for Employment Relations and Wellness from the Human Resources Department) who has not been responding to my emails. In the past month I have sent two emails a week to escalate the matter. The accused senior staff member still works for the Centre. It is not up to me to fire him but UP management.”
Crewe said that she accepted the demonstration, but suggested that it was not a helpful strategy on the part of students and volunteers of the centre and reiterated that they should take the demonstration to Sekobelo’s office and to UP Security Services. The protesters were disgruntled with the response of the director, asserted that they no longer needed explanations and demanded that action be taken against the accused. At the time of going to print, Sekobelo was unavailable for comment.
On 16 August UP Security Services contacted staff and student volunteers and requested statements from them within 72 hours. “We gave our statements and the investigator I spoke to told me that we have to give our statements … so that they can compile a preliminary report based on the investigation and make recommendations as to what should follow next,” said one volunteer.
“So from our understanding that happened, and it was recommended that his person is suspended immediately, which then happened [as] they were suspended,” she recalls.
Following this development, the accused senior manager was met with a suspension and was instructed to not enter campus pending the investigation. However, UP Department of Security Services had not barred his access from the university premises. As a result, on 11 September the accused returned to work and warning was not given to student volunteers by Centre management that he was set to return.
“So during the time of their suspension, our understanding is that Person X is not allowed to be present on the premises, but on various occasions this person was present in the premises, in the CSA&G [and] coming to work like it’s a normal day. So that is essentially what we were demonstrating against,” the volunteer explained.
The Deputy Director of CSA&G, Pierre Brouard stated “he [the accused senior staff member] was out of the country at the time the issues were raised and was asked not to return to the CSA&G”. According to student volunteers “no measures were put in place by management of CSA&G to protect us from him”. Brouard told Perdeby, “We believe that the CSA&G is and should be strengthened as a safe space where full discussions can take place, the students are encouraged to discuss issues that affect them and ways in which these can be resolved.” He also mentioned that the current sexual harassment policy is available in the CSA&G and had been shared with the students.
Brouard, who also represented CSA&G management at the demonstration, said that the Centre empowers student volunteers and staff members to speak up and challenge existing norms.
When asked about management’s actions in protecting student volunteers he said, “a meeting was held with all the volunteers and immediately afterwards the management met with Prof. Grové (UP Registrar) and the process for a hearing was set in motion. Due to the serious nature of the issue we requested that this process be handled by the University and not by the CSA&G”. UP spokesperson, Candice Jooste said, “The staff member … had the complaint against him for sexual harassment. That complaint came through in July. The staff member was then suspended pending a disciplinary outcome. Due process is currently happening.”
On 19 September the only two staff member who gave statements to UP Security Services received notices of the non-renewal of their employment contracts. Crew said, “We will just have to wait for a response from Mr Sekobelo who will decide the fate of the accused. In the meantime my hands are tied”.
On 17 October the CSA&G released a statement in which it expressed its sadness and disappointment about a sexual harassment complaint against one of its staff members.
“[As] a Centre committed to gender justice this is embarrassing and contrary to what we stand for in terms of our core values”.
The centre stated that it is fully supported the rights of students to demonstrate, and saw the demonstration as a positive outcome of their work in training students to engage in activism. However, it also “[felt] it [was] important to place on the record” several points including that they had decisively dealt with a previous, unrelated case of sexual harassment. Other points included their stating that when the current matter was brought to their attention they acted with great urgency and “insisted the university investigate the matter in terms of the Sexual Harassment Policy” and that they “supported the suspension of the accused”. The Centre said that it had asked for students to be supported by the relevant support person noted in the Sexual Harassment Policy and had grown impatient with the process and “tried to urge its speedier resolution, in the interests of fairness for all”, and acknowledged that the process is “stressful for complainants”.
The Centre said that it was “unfortunate” that a social media narrative had been created suggesting that the CSA&G had “been complicit in harbouring a sex predator” and not acting decisively regarding the matter.
The statement concluded in saying that it “values the dignity of all and works to dismantle social systems which undermine this dignity”.
Perdeby asked the Centre if any measures were put in place by its management to prevent this kind of incident from happening again in future.
“Yes, we have always been clear that incidents of this type cannot be allowed in the CSA&G and that action will be taken. We hope that all staff and students behave according to the values and ethos of a sexualities and gender centre and that they respect the privacy and dignity of others,” said Brouard. He also mentioned that the incident had allowed the Centre to reflect on existing processes and whether the processes sufficiently protect staff and students. Brouard confirmed that the Centre would develop new ways of managing various CSA&G projects.
Photo: Fezekile Msimang