In the past weeks, many voices in South Africa have demanded that we focus on what it means to tell our own stories of sexual harassment.
How to explain the experience without evoking responses about the lovability of the harasser? How to ask for support, or justice, without being told that their truth has the capacity to annihilate a whole organisation, or a whole nation? How to tell a story that is unique, a story attuned to the complexities of a specific life full of its own strains, joys, secrets and beauty? How to endure what happens after the story is told: the unexpected anger of strangers, being named as a victim, permanently inscribed as shamed or weak, being forgotten, as ‘another’ story of torment is publicly highlighted, distorted, dismissed, or circulated in the interests of anything but the dignity and rights of the storyteller?
The amazing thing is that throughout South Africa’s histories of struggle, women have told their own stories of being sexually harassed by men, especially in the workplace. So vocal were these voices within union organising of the early 1980s that Cosatu, in its 1985 Inaugural Congress, explicitly committed itself to fighting sexual harassment.
Pieces in Speak magazine, in the late 80s and early 90s, bear witness to this. Patricia Khumalo and Miriam Altman initiated the Sexual Harassment Education Project (SHEP), while NETSH (a regional network on sexual harassment in higher education) was active in the 90s. Policies, vocabularies, and the recognition of sexual harassment as a serious form of violence grew.
In the case of Media24 vs Grobler in 2005, the Supreme Court of appeal emphasised that companies or organisations have “vicarious liability” for any sexual harassment experienced by workers within their space. In 2018, women who have been sexually harassed in an NGO should receive a supportive, respectful and effective response.
Last week, we heard Lisa Vetten and Redi Tlhabi engage with Eusebius McKaiser after McKaiser’s interview with Zackie Achmat on his Radio 702 show on May 24.
McKaiser acknowledged that the interview had rattled him.
Achmat’s declaration of love for Doron Isaacs (identified in women’s stories of sexual harassment as an assailant), his refusal to acknowledge the meaning of his own power as a highly influential man, and his use of a survivor’s gang-rape story to impugn her credibility more than rattled some of us. Achmat’s responses to McKaiser’s questions about a 2011 sexual harassment inquiry in Equal Education (EE) and the current slew of allegations against several men in EE were shocking: evasive, superior, and faux-sensitive to the meaning of patriarchy-in-action. It was tough to regain balance after hearing them.
If Achmat’s positions are any indication of what some women in Equal Education and perhaps other NGOs have to experience on a daily basis, the fact that their stories of sexual harassment have been voiced at all is testament to the survivors’ great courage.
Vetten and Tlhabi spoke clearly to issues that what listeners, long-experienced in gender-based violence, might be wrestling with. Vetten carefully reminded us of the complexity of the term ‘consent’ and asked that we return to issues of ethics. Tlhabi explored how contemporary stories of sexual harassment evoke those of our grandmothers, and of the need for solidarity across time and context.
Before hashtags such as #MeToo, there was a political history of struggle. It is important to remember that we stand on the shoulders of our grandmothers. Tlhabi and Vetten were uncompromising about the long history of tolerance for sexual harassment and sexual violence on the left, and within many strands of struggle politics in South Africa (and beyond). Both women asked for conversations which demand ‘unlearning’ all around. McKaiser said he felt sorry for Achmat; no one pointed out the true weirdness of McKaiser’s confession — was it compassion? The suppression of rage? Something more complex?
The discussion also covered bullying, not sexual, but patriarchal. In the moment of being bullied there is the disbelief that it is happening. Following the event, the survivor has to decide whether she has the power to challenge the abuser through the organisation’s processes. She also cannot remove herself from ongoing interaction with the abuser without leaving her job. Women may not speak out because there are school fees and rent to pay, a need for references for future jobs, as well as deep political commitment to the work that is being done.
Sexual harassment and sexual violence are deeply linked to sexual and reproductive justice. It is impossible to imagine reproductive justice without women’s clear ability to make choices and act on them. When women cannot make the choice to complain and be accorded due process in the workplace because they will be exposed to harm and risky processes we are all compromised. Workplaces mirror our messy society and the great inequalities in which we live. Sexual harassment — in schools, workplaces, hospitals, religious institutions and public spaces — severely compromises women’s self-confidence, security and power. Most significantly their power of choice weakens. That’s the point of sexual harassment; as a persistent and systemic culture of violence, it weakens women’s power and place in our society.
The idea of ‘social justice activism’ becomes a lie when its organising spaces are fraught or abusive. Sexual harassment happens a lot. It is as ordinary as paint and comes in as many different shades. If you experience it, it can indeed be an ‘annihilation’, but how those around you treat your story can be just as damaging as the act itself.
However we find it ludicrous to suggest that a story of sexual harassment has the power to ‘annihilate’ people or organisations in which it occurs (as Pearlie Joubert recently suggested could happen to Equal Education). Annihilation is something that happened to Palestinians on the Gaza border a week ago, to Eudy Simelane assassinated by homophobic thugs.
On the contrary, we believe coming out with stories of sexual harassment should have the power to liberate an organisation and to render it more just. The trick is not to respond in a defensive manner but rather to reflect and to listen very carefully to what is being said both about the current moment and crucially its roots. Whether the issue concerns allegations of sexual harassment, racial violence or hate speech, it is in how we respond to the allegations that we are tested, not by the allegations themselves.