“Several women” allege sexual harassment against Equal Education boss

Tshepo Motsepe. (Ashleigh Furlong/GroundUp)

Tshepo Motsepe. (Ashleigh Furlong/GroundUp)

Tshepo Motsepe, the former head of Equal Education, resigned last month after “several women” alleged they were sexually harassed by him, according to an internal memo seen by the Mail & Guardian. The nature and extent of the allegations remains unclear.

On Monday night, ahead of the publication of this article, Equal Education released a statement admitting that sexual harassment allegations had been made against Motsepe, and that a preliminary investigation had been launched.

Motsepe has denied any wrongdoing.

Motsepe was elected as the general secretary in 2015 after having served as the co-head of Equal Education in Gauteng from 2013. The general secretary is the overall elected head of the movement and also oversees all staff. He resigned on 25 April.

Equal Education is a well-regarded civil society organisation which works with learners, parents, and teachers in an attempt to hold government to account to ensure they provide quality education to school children.

The internal memo stated that the senior management team, which consists of the acting head of the organisation, Leanne Jasen-Thomas, chief financial officer Yoni Bass and chief operations officer Ntshadi Mofokeng were made aware of the sexual harassment allegations in mid-April.

The three conducted an investigation which involved interviewing women directly affected by Motsepe’s harassment. This led to a meeting with Motsepe, where he was confronted with the allegations that were levelled against him.

Motsepe declined to be interviewed for this story.

However, the M&G did see a copy of a letter sent by him to Equal Education’s national council, in which Motsepe admits to having a sexual relationship with a staff member while at Equal Education, but that “this was not an admission of guilt to the allegations that were being put to me”. Motsepe also questioned the procedure that was followed. “The right to a fair process is integral not only to me but to the integrity of the organisation and it is a constitutional imperative,” he said.

Motsepe’s letter stated that he was only made aware of the agenda at the meeting where he was in “shock” and felt devastated by the “serious allegations of sexual harassment” laid out. He said Bass first questioned him about whether he indicated to a staff member he was open to having extra marital affairs; and whether he forced a staff member to leave because she had rejected his advances. “My responses to both these questions were in the negative,” he claimed in the letter.

Motsepe also said he might have complimented a female member of staff in a manner which might have made them feel uncomfortable, but could not recall a specific incident since the “intention was not to harass anyone”.

Equal Education made clear in its communication with staff that the sexual harassment was levelled against him by “more than one woman on the staff”.

In the wake of the allegations against Motsepe, several current and former staffers have claimed that there is a culture of sexual harassment at the organisation.

Equal Education has created an “enabling environment for sexual predators” which prevented survivors from coming forward, said one source close to the organisation. The allegations against Motsepe only emerged now because someone in a position of power took them forward, the source said.

“People were scared because they know Tshepo had a lot of power and they assumed that management would not take their concerns seriously and instead would protect Tshepo. That was not the case - management dealt with this in a serious manner,” the source said.

One former staffer, writing on Facebook, said: “Sexual harassment is the cherry on top of a mountain of injustice, from exploitation, victimisation and general ill-treatment…Many of us have kept quiet for the sake of the movement and the work it does/did. But enough is enough! I stand with these women, and I hope that truth comes out regarding not only the former [general secretary] but the management as a whole.”

Another former staffer, also writing on Facebook, said: “It’s great that the organisation is taking allegations of sexual harassment seriously and examining the problematic organisational culture that may have entrenched itself over time. I think senior staff need to introspect on their complicity in this matter…”.

In its public statement, the organisation’s national council acknowledged that the problem may be broader that just the allegations against Motsepe, promising “establish a separate, broader assessment process, which will examine EE’s record of dealing with mistreatment in the workplace, EE’s policies and procedures in regard to sexual harassment, and the organisational norms and culture which currently exist at EE”.

The M&G is continuing to investigate this story, and other allegations of sexual harassment in the NGO sector. If you have any more information, please contact Carl Collison on [email protected] or Rumana Akoob on [email protected] All communication will be treated in complete confidence.

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