/ 4 September 2013

Wits vows to deal with sexual harassment

Students at Wits University are protesting to express their dissatisfaction with university management.
Students at Wits University are protesting to express their dissatisfaction with university management.

Students and staff at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) did not know exactly what sexual harassment is; there was an ad hoc approach to it on campus; and complaints were not taken seriously by the university, media were told at a briefing for the release of the report into sexual harassment at the university on Wednesday.

"Nobody actually knows what they are talking about when they talk about sexual harassment … there are disparate processes [in dealing with complaints] … and staff and students felt that their complaints were not handled properly," director of the university's Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Bonita Meyersfeld said.

Meyersield  was on the team for the inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment at the university,

The inquiry was instituted in February on the back of a review of formal policies relating to sexual harassment, which started in 2011 as well as heated media coverage on the issue earlier this year.

Following revelations in the media, the university took disciplinary action against four staff members accused of sexually harassing students. Two staff members were, as a result, dismissed in July.

The verdict of the investigation into the third staff member would be heard by the university on Thursday, vice-chancellor Adam Habib told the briefing, and the investigation process had not yet begun into the fourth staff member.

Habib said the university accepted the findings of the report and "rapid intervention" would be instituted.

Don't hide
"We are going to put together a task team… [and] bring in gender experts, and student representatives … that will allow us to deal with this comprehensively. We need to learn from this," he said.

Habib said Wits was going to "become a leader in addressing this issue" and would "demonstrate to the country and rest of the world that this is how you address this challenge: you don't hide it".

When asked if, like the University of the Free State (UFS) which became the poster child for racial transformation in 2008, Wits might become the same for addressing sexual harassment, Habib told the Mail & Guardian he wanted the university to "set a benchmark for the way to do this".

"It will be tricky … the UFS made mistakes and so will we … but we will deal with this firmly and innovatively and maybe we will become the poster child for this," he said.

"On behalf of Wits I want to apologise to students and staff who have experienced sexual harassment. It's absolutely unacceptable."

He thanked the media for "blowing this thing [open]" and "forcing us to grapple with these issues".