We are looking inward: Equal Education

Equal Education, whose members are pictured here protesting against the conditions at township and rural schools in 2015, says it will confront its ingrained systems of patriarchy. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Equal Education, whose members are pictured here protesting against the conditions at township and rural schools in 2015, says it will confront its ingrained systems of patriarchy. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

RIGHT OF REPLY

Written by Leanne-Jansen Thomas and Ntuthuzo Ndzomo

The past few weeks have been among the most painful in Equal Education’s 10-year history.

We have been devastated by allegations of sexual harassment levelled against three men who were in leadership positions in our movement. We are angered by any violation of the principles we hold dear.
And we are saddened when we are not able to prevent this from happening. We have a responsibility to each woman who has had the courage to come forward, and to the thousands of Equal Education members who have put their trust in our movement.

We recognise this time as a difficult, but important, moment of learning. 

Equal Education is meant to be a space that represents the best of what society can be. We are facing up to the reality that we have been unable to extract ourselves from the patriarchal and misogynistic society in which Equal Education exists. Understanding this failure also means understanding how our movement’s culture, policies and practices contributed to what we have seen unfold. The events of the past month have challenged our core values.

At its heart, Equal Education is a youth movement. Pupils talk to people only a few years older than them — what Equal Education calls facilitators. Every week, these groups of young people meet and critically reflect on the issues in their schools and broader communities to take action to change them.

Agency is built. Knowledge is developed. And action follows. A sense of community and movement develops from this. For many, Equal Education becomes our lives; friends become indistinguishable from comrades. These connections persist beyond Equal Education and long after people leave the movement.

Equal Education was established with a simple ideal: that young people could, through organisation and mobilisation, tackle the deep inequalities that beset their schools and communities. Seven pupils attended the first Equal Education youth meeting; today more than 7 000 young people participate in our activities.

One of the most painful lessons from this time is the feeling among some current and former staff members that Equal Education’s current leadership would not act upon allegations of sexual harassment levelled against senior employees. The impression created by some news articles is that Equal Education only started investigating allegations after probes from the media, but that is untrue.

A preliminary investigation into the conduct of the former general secretary was undertaken a day after the allegations against him were brought to the senior management team, and Equal Education’s national council, our movement’s highest decision-making structure, resolved that a full inquiry be established a day after he was confronted with the allegations. Equal Education’s current leadership has sought to deal decisively with every allegation put before us.

We are asking ourselves hard questions about what might have nonetheless contributed to people feeling scared to come forward. To help us answer this question, our national council has resolved to institute an independent inquiry into Equal Education’s policies and procedures and our organisational culture. Our senior management team has asked the national council to investigate its handling of sexual harassment in the workplace.

We have strict and clear policies on sexual harassment. The important lesson for us is that having policies in place is not enough. What is critical is how the people, and especially leadership, who make up our movement engage with these policies.

In relation to the 2011 investigation into the conduct of Doron Isaacs, Equal Education’s national council has resolved that a new and separate panel of inquiry should probe allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him. It will also look into the 2011 investigation at the request of our management team, which has raised serious concerns about it. Equal Education’s new leadership will face up to any mistakes uncovered by the new process, and learn from them.

Because our primary responsibility is to our members, we have spent many weeks informing them of developments with in-person meetings across the country. We have also had follow-up meetings to discuss further developments.

To clarify, as a social movement Equal Education has thousands of pupils as members, spread over five provinces. The heads of our movement and members of the national council are democratically elected by these members. We would have been remiss if our membership had to learn this news through a public statement or electronic communication.

We would be failing in our duty if we did not pause to note our deep concern for complainants.  The allegations were brought by several women towards whom Equal Education feels an immense responsibility, both to ensure a fair and rigorous investigative process and to protect their privacy.

We plead with the public and the media that they don’t speculate about their identities.

We fully support public scrutiny of this process but we must not lose sight of their needs, and the potential to discourage other women from coming forward to expose wrongdoing.

These are unprecedented times of scrutiny, internally and externally, which are important for realigning the movement to our values and principles. These have not been isolated incidents and are part of a deeper problem.

More than anything, this has been a wake-up call for our movement. This critical moment is forcing us, as Equal Education and as civil society more broadly, to interrogate our approach to pursuing social justice while confronting ingrained systems of patriarchy, sexism and power.

It is with the strength, support and resilience of our members, supporters, partner organisations and staff members that we will ensure justice for complainants and continue to do important work. We are reclaiming our movement, reaffirming our dedication to building a space that has no room for violation or abuse of power, and committing to continue fighting for equitable education in our lifetime.

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