Commission grills Blade's department over lack of sexual harassment policy

Blade Nzimande’s higher education and training department has sat with a draft policy on sexual harassment since 2009. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Blade Nzimande’s higher education and training department has sat with a draft policy on sexual harassment since 2009. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Blade Nzimande’s higher education and training department has been taken to task for lacking a sexual harassment policy.

This emerged at the commission for gender equality’s investigative hearings into gender transformation at the country’s higher education institutions, underway between Tuesday and Friday this week in Johannesburg.

The commission questioned how the department expected all higher education institutions to have proper policies in place to deal with cases of sexual harassment, if itself didn’t have its own.

Concerns about the grade of sexual harassment policies of the country’s universities heightened last year and earlier in 2014, amidst reports of cases at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

An investigation found that the university’s now reviewed sexual harassment policy was vague, and unknown to the majority of staff and students. “This [left] complainants – and those to whom they report – in the invidious position of not knowing where to turn for assistance or how to assist,” said the university’s report.

But over the last year Wits has been the only university to investigate the success of its own policy in opening channels for reporting sexual harassment.

Presenting findings of the commission’s investigation, Masilo Letsoalo, its legal complaints officer, said there was “no uniform sexual harassment policy in place” for universities.

“This was a concern for us as a commission,” he said. “The department, as the monitoring institution, should be the one coming up with policies that institutions can follow.

“It’s difficult if you’re acting as a monitoring institution and you’re not compliant with some of these policies.
It’s going to be difficult for these institutions to actually comply with these policies.”

Draft policy since 2009
The commission said its hearings are meant to “probe current internal policies, systems, programmes and relevant strategies put in place by institutions” to achieve gender transformation.

Departmental officials who appeared before the commission confirmed the policy has been a draft since 2009.

Sesi Mahlobogoane, the department’s director of social inclusion and equity, promised the policy would be finalised before the end of the current financial year.

“But the truth is ... we haven’t had a lot of sexual harassment cases within the department,” she said.

“The one case that we remember from last year was withdrawn, and the person who laid the charge resigned from the department and found employment somewhere else. That was the only case that I can remember. In this financial year, there is none that has been reported.”

Deputy director-general for corporate services Lulama Mbobo said an intern reported the case Mahlobogoane mentioned. The complainant subsequently settled it outside the department, according to Mbobo. “She secured a job for herself in one of our Setas. The case then could not proceed because she wasn’t willing to proceed with it.”

‘Women vice-chancellors don’t stay at universities’
Mbobo told the commission the department resolved transgressions using government’s existing policies. “All such cases that are reported, the department has taken action.”

But Thoko Mpumlwana, deputy chairperson of the commission, said this wasn’t enough. “Let’s agree that we have a timeframe for [approval of] this sexual harassment policy. It doesn’t augur well [that it’s still a draft].

“Even though you benchmark with public service, you have to have your own if you are going to expect higher education institutions to have their own. Let’s make sure that we also lead by example.”

Mpumlwana said women found it hard to report sexual harassment in a workplace without clear policies.

“The pain of sexual harassment is that people live with it and they will not report it. We’ve got to create safe spaces for people to feel safe to report. Until that happens, you will not get cases - trust me. Both males and females will not report because [they’ll think] ‘if I have reported everyone will know that I’m the one who was sexually harassed, and there will be people passing remarks’.

“Those things are a reality and so we urge you find a means to create the department as a safe [place] for people to feel safe to report. Sometimes it does happen that people report, but you find it’s not a sexual harassment case. It is better to report it so even the one accused is cleared, rather than the rumours in corridors.”

Mpumlwana said the commission was also “watching with interest how [women] vice-chancellors don’t stay” at universities. Of the 26 universities in the country, there were four women vice-chancellors – until two resigned at the Tshwane University of Technology and University of Zululand respectively.

“What is the climate in these institutions? What culture has been built around them? Do they get into a situation that is so toxic that they can’t stay? Those are things that we want to think about and say how do we help these institutions, or sometimes nudge them through policy to transform.

“In our efforts to transform we have to keep our eyes on the ball because, unless we are specific, these things just fall between the cracks. It’s not easy to transform because it is uncomfortable for some and it is scary for others. You can’t open the door and say ‘just go in ... walk out’. It’s got be a well-planned strategy.” ndash; Mail & Guardian

Bongani Nkosi

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