/ 25 May 2018

Scandal-hit NGO opens three probes

Under threat: Funders of Equal Education’s work are watching with concern after three men
Through its work, the Isaacs inquiry brought about a critical public deliberation regarding the adequacy of adversarial and narrowly legalistic approaches in providing justice to sexual harassment survivors. (David Harrison/M&G)

Equal Education is setting up three inquiries in response to sexual harassment allegations at the organisation.

The allegations, against three senior men, were revealed by the Mail & Guardian last week.

The first inquiry, which has already begun work, will look into allegations of sexual harassment against former general secretary Tshepo Motsepe, who resigned in late April. The panel will be chaired by Mercia Andrews, who is the codirector of the Trust for Community Outreach and Education.

Brad Brockman, a member of Equal Education’s national council, said the terms of reference of this particular inquiry are limited to allegations of sexual harassment levelled against Motsepe. He added that the panel is “empowered to refer any other matter arising for further investigation, exploration or attention, either as the subject of its own inquiry or as part of a broader assessment process”.

After two official complaints were received, a second inquiry — this time into allegations against the former treasurer and cofounder of Equal Education, Doron Isaacs — will also be established.

Brockman said the first complaint was submitted by members of Equal Education’s management team, and the second was submitted by members of Equal Education’s senior management team.

The second probe will look into allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct levelled against Isaacs while he was at Equal Education. It will include a review of the process followed and the findings made in a 2011 investigation into Isaacs’s conduct.

The M&G revealed this week that the 2011 investigation was conducted by four friends of Isaacs, representing a potential conflict of interest.

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

“The terms of reference of [the new] inquiry are being developed with the assistance of independent legal counsel, and the members of the panel tasked with conducting the inquiry are being recruited by [Equal Education’s] national council … We need to emphasise that setting up this inquiry is an urgent priority for Equal Education,” Brockman said.

A broader assessment process will examine Equal Education’s record of dealing with mistreatment in the workplace, the organisation’s policies and procedures with regard to sexual harassment and the organisational “norms and culture”.

“The form which the broader assessment process will take, and who the independent persons will be that Equal Education asks to assist in this process, is still being investigated by the national council,” Brockman said.

Motsepe, Isaacs and the organisation’s former national organising head, Luyolo Mazwembe, have denied the allegations against them.

The past seven days have been tumultuous for the civil society organisation, which has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Last Friday, Isaacs resigned, although he did not admit guilt.

READ MORE: Equal Education treasurer resigns following sexual harassment allegations

On Monday, the Western Cape’s education MEC, Debbie Schäfer, ordered Equal Education to “cease operations” at schools around the province until they meet to discuss a way forward. She also ordered Equal Education to furnish her with the names of any pupils with whom the men accused of sexual harassment may have come into contact — although there is no suggestion that any of the alleged sexual harassment was directed at minors.

Equal Education responded that the MEC’s request was unclear and unjustified. “We reject the political opportunism of her media statement and will not cease our important work in the Western Cape,” it said.

Meanwhile, the organisation’s donors have been watching the developments with concern. Two funders — Comic Relief and the Wallace Global Fund — said they would suspend any further grants until the allegations have been properly investigated.

“It was troubling to learn from the media of the disturbing allegations of a pattern of sexual harassment within the organisation,” said Ellen Dorsey, chief executive of the Wallace Global Fund, responding to the M&G.

She added: “As we are a foundation based in the United States without staff in South Africa to monitor actions of the organisation 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.”

In a tense interview on Radio 702 on Wednesday, Zackie Achmat defended the organisation’s track record but said that some things could have been handled better.

Achmat, a well-known activist and former Equal Education chairperson, was accused of covering up sexual harassment allegations in the organisation, which he denies. “I am willing to submit myself to public scrutiny …and I am really sorry if anyone has felt threatened and unable to come to me … and I want to make reparations. I, as a man, as a black man, have a duty to address those,” he told presenter Eusebius McKaiser.