/ 15 June 2018

No ‘culture of silence’, says Sonke

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)

In 2009, while attending a workshop for men run by Sonke Gender Justice Network, one of the participants was handed a note by a male Sonke employee referring to the participant’s penis size. This was followed by a request to see his penis.

Another participant alleged that he had been asked “if my penis was big … He asked me if he can please see or touch it. I told him he was mad. He then asked me if I can hold or touch his penis.”

This is according to charges laid out in documents the Mail & Guardian has seen against a former Sonke employee.

Pam Gillingham, director of the Family Life Centre, says little if any research has been done into same-sexual harassment within the social justice sector. “This is a relatively unexplored area,” says Gillingham, adding: “If such harassment takes place within the context of an NPO [nonprofit organisation], it probably feels more threatening [for the victim] as NPOs should be safe spaces; spaces where similar values are shared among staff. With same-sex sexual harassment in these spaces, the sense of betrayal is greater … [and] would make the person feel exceptionally vulnerable.”

Queer rights struggle stalwart Bev Ditsie says: “Sexual harassment happens in all communities. I think within the queer community, one of the reasons we’re unlikely to report such incidents — especially with the NGO sector — is because you are supposed to be in a space that is safe; one that defends human rights for all.”

Ditsie adds that, for queer people, reporting such harassment is especially difficult. “We are harassed and violated enough, generally. So we’re not going to want to perpetuate this by saying there is harassment or sexual violation among ourselves.”

An investigation conducted into the conduct of the Sonke employee, Nyanda Khanyile, by the chair of Sonke’s board at the time, in consultation with the Women’s Legal Centre, found that, although Khanyile’s conduct “does reflect a serious error in judgment … it cannot be considered sexual harassment”.

The investigation report said that people can be sexually harassed even if there was no intention on the part of the harasser. But in such cases, the behaviour must be persistent; or must continue after it was made clear that the sexual advances were unwanted. In this case, the conduct did not fall into this category — so Khanyile was cleared. Instead, it was recommended that he meet with the two complainants and write them a letter of apology.

However, in 2015, further allegations of sexual harassment were brought against Khanyile by three male staff members. He was found guilty and dismissed.

Not good enough, says Tian Johnson, a former Sonke employee, who took to Twitter to criticise the way nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) deal with sexual harassment, saying that, although they followed procedure, they did not address the culture of the organisations.

“They followed HR procedures before they fired [him]. Do they think that was good enough? Can they look everyone who gets violated at the hands of [him] that they set free in the eye now?” Johnson tweeted.

Khanyile declined to respond to questions posed to him by the M&G.

Speaking to the M&G, Johnson said: “This form of sexual harassment, that is between men, shows how patriarchy, power and privilege renders some men more vulnerable than other men in the workplace.”

He added that “abuse of this nature can be marginalised because of notions of manhood that position all men as equally privileged”.

“The world should have known about Nyanda and what we were doing to make sure this culture is addressed. I was told [by Sonke], ‘But we did everything; we did an investigation and [he] went.’ But my point is you did nothing more.”

Dean Peacock, Sonke’s founder and co-executive director, says it “acted decisively” by dismissing Khanyile and acted on legal advice by not making the reason known. “We were told [by our lawyers] that we shouldn’t; that [it] is a confidential matter. So, did we have a legal obligation to do that at the time? We didn’t. We checked. We definitely did not sweep things under the rug. There was no culture of silence.”

Peacock said an email was sent to staff saying Nyanda had been dismissed for serious misconduct. “Was it an error, in hindsight, to not mention explicitly that he was fired for sexual harassment? That’s a reasonable question. I think the sector is debating at the moment the level of transparency required. The new policy we are finalising does make it explicit that we will name people.”

In 2010, a then 17-year-old Tebogo Pilane (not his real name) was one of Equal Education’s “equalisers” — the organisation’s high school volunteers. His facilitator made many sexual advances, though “I myself didn’t know at the time that I was gay”.

“I remember we were at a camp once and the guys were showering. As I walked up to the shower, he said I should come and shower with them. I made up some stupid story. It didn’t feel right. You could see it was a matter of: ‘Come shower with us so that later, we could get comfortable’. ”

He accepted an invitation to dinner with the facilitator (whose identity is known to the M&G, but cannot be revealed to protect the source). Pilane says, having ordered a soft drink, he was told, “You can have a cider; nobody can see you’re underage.”

“As we left that restaurant, he tried holding my hand. [He] also wanted to go to a club, but I said I am underage. He said, ‘You’re practically 18 … I’m sure you’re having sex.’ It felt really intrusive. I saw him as my mentor. After he dropped me off at my place, he called me, asking me to crash at his place. I told him he was getting a bit too much.”

The friendship, he adds, “went downhill when he saw his advances weren’t met to his satisfaction”.

In response to questions sent to Equal Education, Leanne Jansen-Thomas said that, because “protecting young people is of the utmost importance” to the organisation, sexual relations between facilitators and equalisers was “strictly forbidden”.

Jansen-Thomas added that no such incident had been reported. “According to the records available to us, such an allegation has never been brought to EE’s disciplinary committee. Equal Education would support any affected party in accessing justice, including supporting the laying of criminal charges against the perpetrator.”

During a discussion hosted by radio host Eusebius McKaiser, Oxfam’s Kwezilomso Mbandazayo said the need for cultural change within the NGO sector should trump organisations merely following procedures. “As much as we [in the social justice sector] set ourselves a standard, we live in a patriarchal, heteronormative, racist society. And those things are going to become the norm; the things that are going to fester in an institution if you are not actively working against them in the culture work, the policy work, the everything work.”

Johnson adds: “As civil society … we have packaged ourselves as exceptional for far too long. Whether the correct processes are followed or not, it’s about creating an organisational culture where people feel free to lay these charges.”

For Peacock, the social justice movement appears to be moving from exceptionalism to introspection. “The sector is shifting in its thinking … it’s evolving.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

The Other Foundation