Donors pause Equal Education funding after sexual harassment scandal

Two of Equal Education’s donors have suspended funding in the wake of the sexual harassment scandal that has engulfed the civil society organisation.

Both Comic Relief and the Wallace Global Fund said they would not be making any further grants until they are convinced the sexual harassment allegations have been adequately investigated.

“Comic Relief has been made aware of the allegations about Equal Education and is investigating this situation as a matter of urgency. Any form of bullying, abuse or harassment is totally unacceptable and we will always take any reports of this type of behaviour very seriously,” said spokesperson Ben Maitland. According to Comic Relief, they have made grants worth over R10-million to support initiatives delivered by Equal Education.

Former Equal Education general secretary Tshepo Motsepe, former head of national organising Luyolo Mazwembe, and co-founder and former treasurer Doron Isaacs are all facing separate sexual harassment allegations, as revealed last week in the Mail & Guardian. All three men deny the allegations against them. Equal Education has established an independent panel to investigate Motsepe, and promised to convene a separate panel to look into other allegations.

“It was troubling to learn from the media of the disturbing allegations of a pattern of sexual harassment within the organization,” said Ellen Dorsey, CEO of the Wallace Global Fund, in a written response to the M&G. The italics are her own. “As we are a foundation based in the US without staff in South Africa to monitor actions of the organization on a routine basis, it is difficult to have an informed opinion on the veracity of the claims. However, we know that typically survivors do not come forward at great risk to themselves without cause. We will not make another grant until we have done further due diligence and are convinced that the allegations have been adequately investigated by the board through an outside and transparent process.”

Fatima Hassan, the director of Open Society Foundation South Africa (OSF-SA) said they were “deeply concerned” about the allegations, but encouraged by Equal Education’s willingness to “subject itself and its processes to scrutiny and review”.

She said that OSF-SA will increase its scrutiny of other grantees. “We do intend to meet with each and every one of our grantees in the weeks ahead, in a proactive way, to examine whether the organisations that we fund have mechanisms to report and expose any sexual misconduct by those in power to ensure that there are consequences for such unacceptable and illegal conduct.” Hassan said. 

In 2018, OSF-SA said they gave Equal Education a grant of R1-million. An additional R4.3 million came from the Open Society Foundation.

READ MORE: Social justice organisations are not squeaky clean, and we must do better

The Raith Foundation said it had been made aware of sexual harassment allegations as far back as 2011, via rumours, but that they accepted that an independent investigation into those allegations had been conducted. Equal Education’s current management have raised serious concerns about whether that investigation was truly independent.

Porticus Foundation, another of Equal Education’s funders, said they have requested the organisation to give them progress updates on the independent investigative panel announced last week and requested that support be given to survivors.

Sigrid Rausing Trust, who has given Equal Education over R12-million, according to their website, said the nature and outcome of the inquiries will inform their relationship with Equal Education and said “so far we have been impressed by the progress made”.

Stuart Craig, the CEO of the Canon Collins Trust said “collaborative work between Equal Education and the Canon Collins Trust does not appear to have been affected so far by these allegations”. He said the Trust regards the allegations as serious and disturbing.

Nicollette Naylor, Director of the South African office of The Ford Foundation said the story emerging at Equal Education was a “microcosm of a larger, systemic problem across sectors and across societies, and all of us have a role to play in addressing this problem and transforming the social and professional cultures we are part of”.

Ford said they believed Equal Education was responding to allegations with appropriate gravity, urgency, and transparency. Since 2010, the FF said they have made six grants to Equal Education, coming to a total of R2.5-million. The current grant expires at the end of this year.

The David & Elaine Potter Foundation said they were aware of the issues but would be making no further comment.

Isaacs is a fellow with the Ashoka Foundation, an international organisation that promotes social entrepreneurship, but his page has been removed from their website.

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Rumana Akoob
Rumana Akoob is a former investigative journalist who is now an activist and communications specialist
Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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