Equal Education grapples with ‘toxic’ culture

Members of Equal Education and schoolchildren march in Khayelitsha on Human Rights Day. Two volunteers have complained that they felt used by the organisation. (David Harrison/M&G)

Members of Equal Education and schoolchildren march in Khayelitsha on Human Rights Day. Two volunteers have complained that they felt used by the organisation. (David Harrison/M&G)

In the wake of its sexual harassment scandal, Equal Education’s management will carry out a “broad assessment” of the organisation’s working culture — but it’s looking further than just sexual harassment.

Last month, the Mail & Guardian revealed sexual harassment allegations against three men connected with Equal Education. During the investigation, other allegations of the abuse of power in the civil society organisation emerged.

“We believe that the current management and leadership of Equal Education has always attempted to create a nonracial, nonsexist, welcoming and safe environment for all staffers and volunteers. But we are welcoming of criticism, and correction, if the organisation has fallen short in these areas,” Equal Education said in response to questions.

Silenced

One example of an allegation of bullying in the workplace comes from Kelly Rosenthal, who worked at Equal Education between May 2010 and December 2011.

“I was not sexually harassed at Equal Education.
But like many others, I was bullied and intimidated. Anyone who heard [well-known activist] Zackie Achmat’s radio interview with Eusebius McKaiser last week will know that these two things cannot be discussed independently: a culture of intimidation and fear enabled a culture of misogyny and sexual harassment to operate more or less unchecked,” she said.

Rosenthal said she had to sign a mutual termination agreement, which prevented her from saying anything negative about the organisation or her former colleagues.

She said Doron Isaacs, the Equal Education co-founder who has been accused of sexual harassment but denies all allegations, forced her to sign it. According to email correspondence seen by the M&G, Isaacs threatened to “revise” her reference if she refused.

A founding member of Equal Education, Joey Hasson, said Rosenthal had confided in him about the nondisclosure conditions at the time, that she had been told by Isaacs she would not receive a reference from him if she did not sign it and that she therefore had felt coerced into doing so.

“I was not involved in the conversation about the [nondisclosure conditions] directly but when Kelly told me about it, I suggested she seek legal advice,” he said.

Isaacs disputes this claim, saying that the agreement was requested by Rosenthal, and that it was a “bog standard” one. He said he did not recall discussing a reference with Rosenthal “but we’d provided a positive reference to the employee in PDF form more than a month prior”.

But his version that the agreement was standard practice is contradicted by Equal Education itself, which told the M&G that “the signing of broad nondisclosure conditions, as evidenced in 2011, is not [standard] practice at Equal Education”.

After the sexual harassment allegations became public last month, Rosenthal asked to be released from the agreement and management responded: “Speak your truth.”

Mixed experiences

Two former Equalisers — the organisation’s term for high school volunteers — told the M&G that they regretted their involvement with the organisation. They describe being told to turn up at marches and demonstrations they knew little about, and given slogans to write on posters. Far from developing their own political activism, they felt they were just pawns in the organisation’s political games.

“Equal Education had a good vision. But as a black person who was once involved, I felt like we were being used. They knew that we were hungry. They would make us all these promises, say we would finish school, go to university. After the organisation got prominent and got funding, they had no more use for us. How many young female leaders got into senior positions?” said one.

Another former Equaliser said: “They were selling hope to us. I was used to get funding, and then when that funding came, we would know nothing about it. We were this idea of black children, as numbers, for their own politics.”

In its 10-year history, however, Equal Education has worked with more than 1 000 volunteers and staff members and the experience of the two Equalisers is not universal.

Another former Equaliser, Phathiswa Shushwana, spoke highly of her experience with Equal Education in a letter to the M&G, which was published in the newspaper last week.

“For me, as a young woman, Equal Education has always felt like a safe space. At the Equal Education office I felt safe from crime and the horrible things that happen in my community,” she said.

Equal Education, in response, said it “will listen to individual stories from the past 10 years of Equal Education, in order to understand the ways that Equal Education can build itself into a stronger movement”.

It stressed that it is black-led and black-run: “Ninety-six percent of Equal Education’s current staff members are black. The majority of Equal Education’s current management team is made up of black women ... Equal Education has consistently and deliberately provided pathways and opportunities for black women to progress through its structures.”

Salary scale

Equal Education’s pay scale is another issue that has proved divisive, especially the difference between the highest and lowest earners.

Heidi Swart worked at Equal Education from 2013 to 2014, and was the staff representative on the human resources committee. Swart negotiated to reduce the salary gap between grassroots workers and management.

“Lower earners, many with families, said they struggled financially. The lowest salary was around R3 500 a month. The highest — reserved for management — was about R25 000. A sliding scale for yearly increases was proposed, whereby lower salary bands received higher percentage increases. The top bands would only be adjusted for inflation.

“If this plan was indeed fully implemented, it wasn’t brought to my attention. To my knowledge, the lowest salary was increased to R4 500 but senior management raised their potential earnings to R29 500, and increases for other low-level earners were negligible.”

The M&G has seen documents that support Swart’s account and indicating that a new salary band for senior management had been added in 2014. But Equal Education disputes this, saying “the information provided to the Mail & Guardian is incorrect or has perhaps been misunderstood”.

It defended its pay scale: “Unfortunately, South Africa is a market economy where people with more formal education, experience and marketable skills generally command higher salaries ... Nonetheless, our orientation has always been to keep the salary differential between the highest and lowest earners as small as possible.”

As of 2014, after a restructuring of salaries, there was a ratio of 1:6 between the lowest full-time package and the highest. A similar ratio pertains today, the organisation said.

Swart quit over the pay issue. “There is an ethical way to do community work, especially if your mantra is social equality ... Paying young people who act as community leaders a monthly stipend of R2 000 to do grassroots empowerment, while management can earn 12 times that from an office chair — from a socialist perspective, that’s unethical.”

Broad assessment

Sources contacted by the M&G have welcomed Equal Education’s plans for a broad assessment process, which will examine the organisation’s record of dealing with mistreatment in the workplace, its policies and procedures with regard to sexual harassment and the organisational norms and culture.

Other civil society organisations may want to follow suit.

READ MORE: Scandal-hit NGO opens three probes

As a group of civil society lawyers wrote in a recent Daily Maverick op-ed: “We call on our sector to interrogate the ‘beyond reproach’ disposition and to disabuse themselves of the notion that our sector is somehow immune to sexual harassment, racism and other abuses of power. It is these unchecked exercises of power, in the form of white privilege and patriarchy, that result in the toxic environment being unearthed at Equal Education,” wrote Basetsana Koitsioe, Amanda Rinquest, Elgene Roos, Thabang Pooe, Thandeka Kathi and Wandisa Phama.

Rosenthal said that, for civil society to function effectively, these issues must be addressed. “In the days to come, much will be said about the tragedy of the fall of great leaders in civil society. We all know how desperately this country needs good leaders; to criticise those who stand tall seems sacrilegious. But I don’t want to talk about that tragedy. I want us to talk instead about the tragedy of what might have been, if this organisation had been different.

“Not for South Africa, not for education but for the individual young people who walked through the doors of Equal Education in Khayelitsha and were given hope that their lives could be different.”

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