/ 11 December 2018

A culture of sexual harassment and bullying existed at EE – report

Equal Education co-founder Doron Isaacs.
Equal Education co-founder Doron Isaacs. (David Harrison/M&G)

The allegations of sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying and silencing reflect an organisational culture at Equal Education that in the past allowed for wrongdoing by certain individuals.

This is according to a dissenting report penned by Professor Rashida Manjoo on the investigation into the civil society organisation and its co-founder Doron Isaacs.

According to the report sent to Equal Education on Monday, the organisation has failed in the past to provide a safe space for sexual harassment complainants seeking support.

Manjoo also criticised an initial report by retired high court judge Kathleen Satchwell and Professor Malose Langa from the department of psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand which cleared Isaacs and Equal Education co-founder Zackie Achmat.

Achmat was accused of covering up allegations of sexual harassment against his colleague.

Manjoo was on the initial panel chaired by Satchwell, but resigned two weeks before the Satchwell report was delivered.

Manjoo lambasted the “overly legalistic” conduct of the inquiry and its decision to exonerate Isaacs and Achmat.

Manjoo’s report contains excerpts from 19 confidential statements received by the panel. The statements paint a picture of bullying and intimidation within Equal Education and an organisational culture which allows sexual harassment to go unchecked.

One anonymous complainant said she was sexually assaulted by an unnamed senior Equal Education member, adding that she was actively discredited within the organisation and associated organisations after rumours of the assault spread.

Another complainant, said she was groomed and assaulted by a member of Equal Education management. “Her statement reflects a pattern of behaviour in how this individual approached women online and during late-night meetings, under the pretence of joint professional interests,” the report reads.

One complainant said she was warned about sexual predation when she started working at Equal Education and was accused of rumour-mongering when she spoke out about the allegations.

An examination of the “19 statements may have resulted in the identification of patterns of conduct at EE [Equal Education] that reflected an organisational culture of sexual harassment, intimidation and bullying”, Manjoo says.

Isaacs told the Mail & Guardian that these statements were never put to him during the inquiry. “I respect the fact that Prof Manjoo has dissented from the majority report by Judge Satchwell and Prof Langa,” Isaacs said.

“But why were the anonymous complaint summaries published by Prof Manjoo in her report never put to me for a response during the inquiry? This request was repeatedly refused by the anonymous authors. I read them in Prof Manjoo’s report for the first time.”

In her 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.

READ MORE: Independent inquiry clears former Equal Education leaders

Satchwell said, despite offering the complainants different ways to tell their stories, including separate hearing rooms and giving their versions in writing, these were refused.“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.

The initial report revealed that Manjoo had resigned from the panel because she disagreed with much of the content of Satchwell’s findings. 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.”

Doron Isaacs, Zackie Achmat and Nathan Geffen have all complained to the press ombudsman about the M&G’s reporting on the allegations of sexual harassment at Equal Education, which ultimately set in motion the panel of enquiry. Geffen was part of a 2011 investigation into allegations against Isaacs.

In her report, Manjoo said the panel in the early stages of its work acknowledged its responsibility to conduct a victim-centred inquiry, this position shifted as the overly legalistic processes were imposed on the panel.

LETTER: Civil society condemns Satchwell report

Manjoo said that Isaacs and his co-accused pressured the independent panel investigating sexual harassment allegations against him to clear him of wrongdoing.

According to the report the panel received numerous demands by the lawyers of the accused to exonerate them. The decision to clear Isaacs and Achmat was influenced by pressure from the accused, Manjoo said.

“The demand by named parties has been for an unequivocal outcome i.e. clearing these parties of all wrongdoing. Their legal representatives have at different stages, put the panel on notice, namely by articulating that an outcome which does not satisfy vindication and exoneration, will be open to review,” reads the report.

In the report, Manjoo also quotes a letter sent to the panel by Isaacs’s lawyer on November 16, weeks before Satchwell’s report was released: “An outcome which merely notes that there is insufficient evidence to confirm allegations will be an injustice and will set an unjust and unfortunate precedent. In the circumstances, such an outcome would be open to review.”

Manjoo said that during the process of the inquiry the “overwhelming need was for vindication”, adding that this was not in the best interest of the complainants or Equal Education.

When contacted for comment, Satchwell said she has no interest in talking to the M&G.

Despite Equal Education’s plea that Satchwell hold off on delivering the report and to wait for it to be released alongside Manjoo’s report on Monday, Satchwell’s 142-page report was made public at the end of November.

In May, 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. Satchwell’s report also found that the 2011 investigation was fair and appropriate.

Following the release of Satchwell’s report, Achmat released a statement. “It is clear that the M&G 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,” he said.

Achmat said on Wednesday that he is not yet willing to comment on Manjoo’s report, adding that he has little trust in the M&G.

Manjoo does not make any findings of guilt or innocence in her report, saying that it would be inappropriate to do so because the inquiry was not a criminal trial.

Instead she recommends that Equal Education reflects on “implementation challenges in respect of organisational policies” and encourage an understanding about “how power intersects with status and privilege and how this can lead to abuse of authority, silencing of victims and impunity for perpetrators”.

“Equal Education bears the responsibility to … understand how the organisational culture contributed to allegations of sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying and silencing,” Manjoo concludes.

In a statement released by the organisation on Tuesday, Equal Education general secretary Noncedo Madubedube said: “A priority for EE is to ensure the safety, protection and wellbeing of every member and employee of our movement and to listen to vulnerable members of our movement when they bring forward allegations of wrongdoing, acting sensitively and swiftly.”

“It was with this in mind that we set up this independent enquiry so that we could deal with the issues raised transparently, with due process that could provide an environment for complaints to participate without fear or intimidation.”

Editorial: We will continue to tell the news

Madubedube said the organisation notes the findings of both reports and called Manjoo’s findings “very useful” to the organisation’s development as it works on “restoring trust and confidence through a broader organisational review that is already underway”.

This article has been updated to reflect comment from Doron Isaacs, Zachie Achmat and Kathleen Satchwell.

Read the full Manjoo report below:

Report for EE From Rashida Manjoo 10 Dec 2018 FINAL by Mail and Guardian on Scribd