‘Close friends’ of accused ran Equal Education’s sexual harassment investigation

A 2011 investigation into sexual harassment allegations at Equal Education was conducted by close friends of the accused person, the Mail & Guardian can reveal. Management and former staff of the South African civil society organisation have dismissed its findings as “not independent” and demanded a new investigation into co-founder and former treasurer Doron Isaacs.

Last week, a Mail & Guardian exposé revealed sexual harassment allegations against Isaacs. Isaacs resigned his post following publication of the article, although he admits no guilt.

Central to Isaacs’ defence is the finding of a 2011 investigation, which was constituted at the request of Isaacs himself. The investigation had a narrow mandate, to investigate “a rumour circulating” that Isaacs “had had relations of a sexual nature with an Equal Education intern, and that this had resulted in this person leaving the organisation”.

Nonetheless, the investigation reached broad conclusions. It found there was “not a shred of evidence” to the rumour. Moreover, it claimed that there was no evidence to suggest that Isaacs used his position of authority to make unwelcome advances to women employed by or associated with the organisation; or that any women associated with Equal Education ended that association as a result of unwelcome advances by Isaacs.

READ MORE: W. Cape suspends Equal Education’s school operations after sexual harassment claims

The investigation concluded by exonerating Isaacs of any “misconduct”, and raised concerns about rumour-mongers who “fuel the spread of damaging and false allegations”.

But in the wake of a spate of sexual harassment allegations that have emerged recently at Equal Education, against not only Isaacs but also former general secretary Tshepo Motsepe and former head of national organising Luyolo Mazwembe, the organisation’s management have raised serious concerns about the quality of the investigation into Isaacs.

“We are aware of the 2011 investigation into Doron Isaacs, but have serious concerns about how it was conducted. We do not believe that the panel that investigated him was independent. We believe it ought to have been,” said management in a letter sent to Equal Education’s National Council last week. The letter was signed by interim national coordinator Leanne Jansen-Thomas and 12 other staff members.

The M&G’s investigations can reveal that all four members of the panel, Paula Ensor, Nathan Geffen, Sean Feinberg and Michelle Adler — who constituted the Human Resources Sub-Committee of the Equal Education board — were close friends with Isaacs at the time of the investigation. Emails obtained show that Isaacs would host and attend social gatherings with members of the panel investigating him, a potential conflict of interest.

In an email to M&G Geffen said it was the mandate of the HR sub-committee to deal with disciplinary issues and the fact that they comprised the panel investigating Isaacs was a matter of process.

Geffen, Feinberg and Adler however all admitted to being friends with Isaacs.

Ensor, who led the panel, flatly denied being friends with Isaacs — but documentary evidence suggests otherwise.

Ensor is a well-respected figure in South African education circles. She was dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town at the time, as well as an Equal Education board member. She said: “I was not close to Doron. I knew him through my involvement in Equal Education…I became closer to Doron after the investigation, and met his parents once thereafter,” she said.

Ensor added: “In my view there was not a conflict of interest. I was not close to Doron at that stage.”

However, an email from Ensor to Isaacs, obtained by the M&G, shows that their personal relationship dates back at least two years before the investigation began. In April 2009, Ensor is “having a few friends round for an informal lunch” — and Isaacs is invited. Multiple sources in the same social circle claim that the pair were friends, contrary to Ensor’s reply to the M&G. Another email from Ensor, dated April 2011, invites Doron to “a small informal celebration of my 60th”.

Geffen, Feinberg and Adler all claim that their close friendship with Isaacs did not represent a conflict of interest. Geffen said: “The fact is that unequivocal evidence was provided that the supposed complainants did not wish to lodge a complaint, and had no complaint to make. Some expressed dismay that people were complaining on their behalf. Had any complaint been made we would have constituted a disciplinary investigation chaired by someone outside the organisation, but it’s not possible to run a disciplinary investigation of this nature without a complainant or evidence of wrongdoing.”

“We found no evidence of sexual harassment, and no complainants came forward,” said Ensor.

However, Charlotte Fischer, who worked for Equal Education at the time, said that she attempted to connect Ensor with women who had experienced sexual misconduct — but that Ensor rebuffed her.

“I called Paula. I said I haven’t been harassed, but I’ve been in touch with a number of women and I was willing to connect her and the women because they had stories that were all very similar about sexual harassment in the workplace. Paula’s response to me was that I could be sued for slander. She referred to what I was saying in an email as unsubstantiated rumour-mongering. She named her twin concerns as sexual harassment and rooting out malicious rumour-mongering. She refused to meet me. She refused to give me any assurance about how if the women came forward how they would be protected. She requested that they contact her directly. They didn’t hear because they didn’t want to hear,” said Fischer. 

The M&G has viewed this correspondence.

In an email, Ensor also told Fischer that “I am not interested in any consensual relationships Doron may or may not have had with women inside or outside of EE.” This appears to be a very restrictive definition of sexual harassment, ruling out the possibility that misconduct or abuse of power may have occurred in a consensual relationship, given Isaacs’ seniority within the organisation.

Contacted for further comment, Ensor declined to respond to specific allegations against her: “I am very pleased that an independent panel has been established to investigate the conduct and findings of the 2011 investigation. Please will you forward to that panel any questions you may wish the panelists to consider and to raise with me. I am not willing to be party to the conducting of this investigation via the pages of the Mail and Guardian.”

Equal Education has established a panel to investigate claims of sexual harassment against former general secretary Tshepo Motsepe. The organisation has promised to establish an independent inquiry “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”.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.
Rumana Akoob
Rumana Akoob is a former investigative journalist who is now an activist and communications specialist

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