Equal Education founders Doron Isaacs and Zackie Achmat have been cleared on all counts by an independent inquiry set up to look into sexual harassment allegations against Isaacs and accusations that Achmat covered his tracks.
Achmat said he had welcomed the inquiry when it started and that its findings were conclusive evidence that “I did not obstruct or defeat the ends of justice for survivors of sexual harassment on behalf of Doron Isaacs”.
The inquiry’s majority also included a stinging rebuke of the Mail & Guardian story in May that triggered the investigation, saying it was “reminiscent of the gutter journalism of the National Party apartheid regime”.
The M&G reported that Isaacs “has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment” based on interviews with “more than a dozen (current and former) Equal Education staff members”. Both Isaacs and Achmat had vehemently denied the allegations, the M&G said.
The newspaper also reported on an internal investigation in 2011 of Isaacs’s conduct, initiated by Achmat, about which sources had “raised serious questions” — on the impartiality of the panel and whether due process was properly followed. This was also denied by the head of the panel.
Isaacs then resigned from Equal Education and it established the inquiry, chaired by retired high court judge Kathleen Satchwell, to look into the allegations made by the M&G.
In her 142-page report, Satchwell said the panel had not considered any of the 19 submissions received from complainants because those who had made the statements were unwilling to give up their anonymity and have their versions probed or tested.
She said, despite offering the complainants different ways to tell their stories, including separate hearing rooms and giving their versions in writing, these were refused, she said.
“It must be appreciated that a ‘victim sensitive’ or ‘victim centred’ approach cannot operate in a vacuum devoid of regard for the principles set out in the Constitution [and] the concerns, admonitions and strictures of natural justice,” Satchwell said.
This meant that “there are thus no complaints tendered in any form in accordance with these terms of reference” and the majority decision found that there was no evidence produced to support the harassment claims or cover-up allegations. The report also found that the 2011 investigation was fair and appropriate.
The panel included Malose Langa of the department of psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand and Rashida Manjoo of the faculty of law at the University of Cape Town. Manjoo also served five years as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.
The report also revealed that Manjoo had resigned two weeks before it was delivered. Her email, telling her fellow panellists about her resignation, said she was “unable to associate myself with the findings”.
“This report reads like a judgment and makes findings which include exonerating individuals, despite us not hearing the victims, and also not having tested the authenticity of documents produced, especially by Isaacs and Achmat,” it reads.
“Unfortunately, I see this report as serving the interests of Isaacs etc in their quest for ‘vindication’ with the press ombud [and] defamation cases against the individuals such as the reporters.”
Manjoo’s dissenting report is yet to be released. In a statement released on Wednesday, Equal Education said: “We commit to responding substantively on both reports once we have received Professor Manjoo’s report, and ask for patience while we wait for her report.”
In her report, Satchwell said, of the 19 submissions received, there were three people who complained that they “felt that they had been manipulated into participating in and exchanging sexual texting over the internet”. Three complaints were from “persons who had a consensual, intimate sexual relationship, which they subsequently considered to have been manipulative in both design and content”.
Three more related to people “who felt that persons within Equal Education had attempted to stifle exposure of the true state of activities or organisational culture”.
The rest of the complaints did not deal with issues that were covered in the terms of the panel’s reference and there was also some overlap between the complaints, she said.
Satchwell said the terms of reference had prescribed that the information received should be furnished to those who were implicated. But the terms of reference also said the complainants’ anonymity should be protected, creating “a most difficult conundrum”.
Ultimately, the panel made its decision based on other evidence, including on what it was told by Isaacs, Achmat, those involved in the inquiry and the M&G reports.
But the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC), which represented the complainants, said on Wednesday that the report was “alarming” in its finding that “no evidence was put before the panel related to sexual harassment or any similar misconduct”.
The organisation added that this “evidence was excluded based on criteria that were not communicated to us, nor to any of our clients”.
“The WLC supported 19 persons who came forward to make confidential submissions to the panel. The manner in which the submissions were made was in terms of the terms of reference … which provided for complainants to make submissions confidentially. Our clients chose this option, as per the terms of reference.”
The statement added: “The process set up by the panel provided no protection to our clients from intimidation or future persecution for their participation. Our concerns around the secondary victimisation of our clients were raised with the panel but were never directly responded to.”
The WLC said the people who came forward “were prepared to engage with the panel via the WLC; however, the panel never engaged with them, nor asked them a single question”.
Satchwell was scathing about the anonymous submissions: “It is necessary to express my greatest concern, serious disquiet and even disgust at persons who hide behind anonymity for themselves when making grave and reputational-destroying allegations against persons whom they freely name and shame and deny the same opportunity for privacy before any investigation into the truth or otherwise of these allegations is conducted.”
She added that the M&G did not justify why it chose to protect their anonymity, adding that it seemed no thought was given when Isaacs and Achmat were denied the same courtesy, or to the “pain and hurt experienced both privately and professionally”.
What had been published on the basis of anonymous sources appeared “to constitute an attempt to destroy good names and reputations without even a hearing or a fair opportunity to confront the substance of any allegation”.
In his statement on Thursday, Achmat added: “It is clear that the Mail & Guardian published false allegations aimed at the destruction of my reputation, and which left an indelible scar on Equal Education and all the movements and organisations with which I am associated, their leaders and their members.”
M&G editor-in-chief Khadija Patel said she had not been approached by the panel to respond to this or any other negative finding in the report.
Criticising the M&G, Satchwell said: “The rush to publication without hearing and publishing a full response is somewhat reminiscent of the gutter journalism of the National Party apartheid regime where allegations of ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist acts’ were made by unnamed sources … against persons who were identified and named in circumstances where they had no opportunity to reply and where untested propaganda could rule the roost.”
Langa, the second member of the panel, appeared ambivalent about which recorded that “Professor Langa is of the view that this section need not be included in the report”.
Through his representatives, Isaacs told the M&G that he “has no personal statement to make at this time”.
In his statement, Achmat concluded: “It is clear to me that we have work to do, and must continue to do work already under way to address sexual violence, power and patriarchy in our campaigns, organisations and movements.”
The WLC said it would continue to support “the 19 complainants who bravely came forward to give their evidence to the panel despite significant fears that this might prejudice their futures in the social justice sector”.
The statement added: “We find it curious that the Satchwell report was released ahead of this second report [Manjoo’s report], which raises questions about the panel’s internal workings.”