Prominent activist Zackie Achmat has demanded the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) retract a statement it released in the wake of allegations that he attempted to cover up sexual harassment accusations at Equal Education.
Achmat is well known for his work as a founder of the HIV activist organisation, which spearheaded the campaign for universal access to antiretrovirals during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency.
“TAC was an organisation for which I and others would have given our lives,” Achmat told the Mail & Guardian this week. “I hope we can resolve it amicably.”
In the letter of demand addressed to the TAC, Achmat said the organisation’s statement constitutes “criminal defamation”. The letter is dated December 5.
“On May 19 2018, your organisation, the TAC, published on its website, through its email lists and disseminated on social media, a statement innocuously but perhaps grandiosely titled TAC Statement On Sexual Harassment,” Achmat said in the letter, following it with a demand for an unconditional retraction of the statement, which said that it viewed the allegations against him in the same way as other cases of sexual misconduct.
Achmat also demanded an unconditional apology, which he wanted circulated to the organisation’s email lists, its partners and on TAC’s social media platforms by December 10.
TAC chairperson Sibongile Tshabalala said Achmat had not been in contact with the organisation since then about the matter and that his complaint was being dealt with internally. She would not comment any further.
The TAC statement responded to an M&G article, which reported allegations of sexual harassment against Equal Education co-founder Doron Isaacs. The article also contains accusations that Achmat tried to cover his colleague’s alleged actions.
In its statement, the TAC said it has been calling for justice in a number of sexual misconduct cases, including that of Fezeka “Khwezi” Kuzwayo — former president Jacob Zuma’s rape accuser.
The statement also referred to the TAC’s call for UNAids executive director Michel Sidibé “to take responsibility for his actions as he was implicated in having had a hand in covering up for the sins of his deputy, Luiz Loures”.
“Zackie’s case is no different,” said the organisation, adding the TAC’s demand for the urgent establishment of an independent investigation to run concurrently with a criminal investigation.
In his letter to the TAC, Achmat said the statement was criminal defamation because it “goes much further” than the M&G with its demand that he be criminally prosecuted.
Achmat also took exception to the claim that he and Isaacs committed crimes comparable to Zuma’s alleged rape of Khuzwayo and Sidibé’s cover-up at UNAids.
An independent panel was appointed by Equal Education in July to investigate the sexual harassment allegations at the organisation. The panel of three was chaired by retired judge Kathy Satchwell. The other two panellists were Professor Malose Langa and Professor Rashida Manjoo.
A 142-page report by Satchwell and Langa was made public at the end of November. It cleared Isaacs and Achmat of all wrongdoing, and included a stinging rebuke of the M&G story.
Manjoo resigned from the panel two weeks before the report was released and this week delivered a dissenting report to Equal Education.
Achmat said in the letter to the TAC that he had informed the TAC’s general secretary, Anele Yawa, that its statement was hurtful and defamatory. Yawa decided to leave the matter until the Equal Education inquiry had been finalised, he said.
“I have since learnt that the current general secretary and the previous one still associated with your organisation have signed a ‘civil society’ letter rejecting the majority report,” Achmat said. The civil society letter strongly condemned the findings of the Satchwell report.
Isaacs and Achmat have complained to the press ombudsman about the M&G’s reporting on the allegations. The M&G’s lawyers have also received correspondence from Achmat’s lawyers informing them of their client’s intention to sue the newspaper for damages.
Achmat released a statement after the Satchwell report was made public. “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.
This week, Achmat said he was not yet willing to comment on Manjoo’s report, adding that he had “little trust in the M&G”.
Manjoo’s report criticised the Satchwell report for the “overly legalistic” approach taken by the inquiry and the decision to exonerate Isaacs and Achmat.
In her report, Manjoo said the panel had, in the early stages of its work, acknowledged its responsibility to conduct a victim-centred inquiry, but this position shifted as overly legalistic processes were imposed on the panel.
Manjoo said Isaacs put the panel “on terms” to clear him. “The demand by named parties has been for an unequivocal outcome [that is] 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.”
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 either the complainants or Equal Education.
Isaacs’s attorney, Imraan Haffegee, said he would not respond in detail to Manjoo’s remarks, because “debates of this nature cannot properly be resolved through the media”.
“But, we live in a constitutional democracy subject to the rule of law. As lawyers we must represent clients in this context,” Haffegee said.
“We neither communicated improperly nor demanded or suggested the panel act unfairly towards anyone, including potential complainants. With due respect, Professor Manjoo’s report represents the minority view of a panel that included another professor and a high court judge.”
‘Complex, difficult, imperfect’
Manjoo’s report contains summaries of 19 confidential statements received by the panel. These submissions were not considered by the majority panellists because, the majority report said, the complainants were unwilling to give up their anonymity and so their versions could not be tested.
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.
Manjoo said, however, that 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”.
Isaacs told the M&G that he respected Manjoo’s decision to deliver a dissenting report, but was confused about the summaries, which were never put to him for a response during the inquiry.
“Now that it is too late to respond. I read anonymous allegations for the first time in Professor Manjoo’s report,” Isaacs said.
“Most of the statements do not seem to allege experiences of misconduct by me and many are by people I had never worked with … I do wish I had received them so that I could have reflected and responded, and I said this consistently during the inquiry. In each case where the author of one of Professor Manjoo’s summaries is recognisable, I could have refuted the allegation with documentary evidence.”
Equal Education general secretary Noncedo Madubedube expressed disappointment at Satchwell’s decision to exclude the 19 statements. She described the inquiry as “complex, difficult and imperfect”, adding that the organisation had hoped the process would yield greater guidance on how to run victim-centred approaches.
Twelve of the 19 anonymous complainants released a statement this week, asking Equal Education not to weigh the two reports equally and to admit the Satchwell report was a failure.
“We made our submissions in the hope that they would encourage Equal Education and other social justice organisations to re-examine their organisational culture,” the complainants added.
“Too many talented women have been lost to Equal Education and we hope that the Manjoo report will help Equal Education reflect on how it can shift this dynamic.”
When contacted for comment, Satchwell said she had no interest in talking to the M&G.