Reporting on sexual abuse – the most difficult journalism of all

By Pearlie Joubert 24 May 2018

Photo by Tom Roberts on Unsplash

It is terribly difficult to investigate and write about sexual abuse and assault. Steinhoff's Markus Jooste and Christo Wiese doing their opaque financial contortions authorising them to call stealing “doing aggressive business” while gluttonising themselves on more luxury houses and horses, massive cars and half starved wives and girlfriends; the Guptas and their intellectually challenged ministers doing country, boardroom and tender takeovers, in comparison, is a piece of candy.

The Zumas; the Guptas; Tom Moyane and Brian Molefe – to single out some of my favourites – leave, despite their best efforts, their hard currency stained fingerprints all over the timelines of theft and tender fraud and financial and political manipulation. Like Matryoshka dolls one can unpack who did what, when and where and with what authority and whose cover.

Journalists – my people – can almost always find the supporting boardroom decisions. Because it’s often contained in minutes; emails; recordings; statements and then you simply, once seeing the cracks, follow the money and track the trajectory.

The point being: when you’re “leaked” the Guptas’ emails, Wikileaks, Snowden’s files, the brown envelopes a la-Rasool days in Cape Town, you get hard stuff typed on a computer; often in narrow, uptight Calibri with dates; properties; statistics, summaries.

With sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, misogyny, power imbalances, silencing the victim which always favours the powerful, there is seldom evidence. There is seldom the hard stuff that can stand up in court. (I’m making myself gag here on the blowjob references.) There’s just the messy, sore and painful, deeply private he said-she said; he did-she did not playing itself out in the blurry fog of evidence destroyed under showers; over years leaked away by imprecise colourless memory; clouded by shame, and rage, and fear.

In early 2013 I started investigating allegations of sexual abuse and assault and rape against two Wits University drama lecturers.

At night in icy cold Wits corridors and lecture rooms I interviewed students and former students. Lovely, young girls – and boys – wringing their hands in shame and fear; clutching their own upper arms, finding only cold comfort.

I interviewed 16 students, some of them already graduated and left the university; one never graduated. Instead had a breakdown trying to live with the memories of her lecturer shoving his fingers into her vagina during a drama class practical.

I don’t want to retell their stories. You can search for “Wits Rape Xoli Norman Pearlie or Tshepo wa Mamatu” in any combination and go and read the March 2013 bunch of stories and subsequent fallout.

Most of them have not told their parents because they felt ashamed about their own complicity. Bar one or two, none of them has laid charges with the police. About half the students did go to the authorities to report these incidents but were largely met with institutional indifference with the reputation of the university and the male lecturers always trumping the stories of the women, they felt.

I want to talk about how difficult it was to get those stories in a publishable form; how I harangued two, no wait, three Sunday newspaper editors (it was Ray Hartley’s last Sunday Times newspaper that in the end published the story) to relax the codes of conduct guiding us journalists. I want to talk about the fights with the subs; lawyers and news editors but how the rigour, the editing, the rules of engagement and strong and simple principles guiding our profession, not only made me a better journalist – unfortunately every single time – but also turned a mere Sunday newspaper story into a benchmark inquiry which made Wits a safer place for women and men into the future.

I want to talk about how the insistence of editors and subs to adhere to the press code always forced me to remember that journalism is not nuclear warfare where all is annihilated in its wake, but that we are much more effective operating like snipers – meticulously doing my job, being fair and uncompromising about that.

The Equal Education, Doron Isaacs story by the Mail and Guardian reminded me of that time and of how hard it was to build hearsay into fact which is what you, being a journalist, have to do. Because if you don’t, you run the risk of failing every woman and man who has been raped, sexually abused, or assaulted. You run the risk of failing all of us women who frequently find ourselves buckling at the receiving end of pervasive patriarchy and systemic power imbalances always skewed against us. Simply because you’re too lazy; or you have another agenda that has little to do with journalism and all to do with settling scores or using our noble profession as a wrecking ball.

May the Sunday Times’ investigative unit and their SARS reporting between 2014 and 2015 always be remembered in this context.

Back to 2013.

I started working on the Wits sexual abuse stories in early January 2013. About five weeks later, I felt I had strong enough evidence and had done enough research; flew back home and sat on my arse for hours crafting word for word and filed to the Sunday Times. I wrote two stories. The top of the main story read:

Celebrated academic, theatre-director; writer, newspaper and radio opinionista and deputy head of the University of Johannesburg (Wits) drama school Tshepo wa Mamatu is accused of being a sexual predator by numerous current and former students.

ST interviewed ten students from Wits who all told how Wa Mamatu has been a sex pest at the Drama Department for some six years; how the authorities have been informed of this on numerous occasions and how Wa Mamatu seems to be immune to any sanction.”

The other story intro’d:

It is not only Tshepo Wa Mamatu at Wits accused by students of being a sexual predator. Music composer, academic, playwright and poet Xoli Norman, who wrote the musical play ‘HALLELUJAH!’ resigned from KwaZulu-Natal University’s (UKCN) Drama school after a charge of rape was laid against him in March last year in Pietermaritzburg by one of his students. After he left UKZN, despite Wits enquiring about the charges against Norman, the institution still went ahead and employed him on a contract as a ‘sessional staff’ member at the Drama Department.

Norman, like Wa Mamatu, is a performance lecturer teaching undergraduate and first year students…”

The story was given to a night editor – specifically to look for possible legal issues. The story was spiked with a short and curt email asking me for more comprehensive commentary from Wits University.

Wits’ head of communication responded with a slightly annoyed “you’ve not given us enough time to respond blah blah and we have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment blah blah and we take this in a serious light blah blah and stringent policies and processes and procedures blah blah.”

Wits were given seven hours to comment on why they hired a man with a known record of sexual misconduct towards students (Xoli Norman) and why they seemingly ignored complaints against Wa Mamatu despite complaints against him made by students.

The night editor then flagged more major problems with the stories:

  • … “I am worried about this story,” he wrote.

  • Some of victims would surely have made diary notes/told their parents/lodged statements with police/varsity authorities;

  • So far none of the complaints are corroborated by police/NPA…

  • Did Wits really knowingly hire a rapist and serial sexual abuser…

  • Can any of these students give us an affidavit?

  • Some of these assaults happened during rehearsals – surely they would have been witnessed by other students?

  • He wrote suggestive SMSs to students – can one of them please show us one or two of the text messages?

  • This is serious stuff, so surely they would not simply press the delete button.

  • … the denials from both men are going to have to be carried near the top – second or third para.

  • Then more detailed denials in direct quotes are going to have to be published lower down.

  • If we can’t prove rape, let’s not mention it,” he said, ending with:

  • I think we should bounce finished story off our lawyers.”

Frustrated, angry, I wrote back to the editor:

We all know the numbers; we’ve all lived with the figures and the stats … on sexual violence and rape of women in our country. But here it is again:

  • one in nine rapes are reported

  • 7% of all rapes reported end up with a conviction in our country

  • every four minutes a women gets raped – over 40% of South African women will get raped in her lifetime.

So when I file a story, a story that needed questions answered – (you’re) saying some victims would ‘surely have made diary notes/told their parents/lodged statements with police/varsity authorities’…

There is nothing ‘surely’ about how people who were sexually abused and/or even raped should behave. It is because of this thinking that we, as a society, are stumped when it comes to getting people to report rape in the first place and getting more convictions in the second place.

How would you know how ‘surely’ a young black girl from KwaZulu-Natal should behave when her lecturer demands that she rehearses night after night?

Who are you to say how a 18-year old coloured girl from the Eastern Cape should ‘surely’ react when her university lecturer asks her to masturbate whilst filming her?

Surely you are a man and have no idea what you are talking about with any certainty whatsoever.

If we can only report rapes and sexual abuse once it’s been reported to the police, we can only write stories concerning one in nine South Africans. You work out the percentage…

You ask if Wits ‘really knowingly hired a rapist and serial sexual abuser’ (or did they just not bother to check him out properly?) Yes they did. Wits was ‘deeply concerned and uncomfortable about Xoli Norman years ago’. But it was never followed up; never investigated.

It’s too difficult; it’s too intimate; it’s too political – Norman is a black man and the people pushing for him to teach there are the good people; they’re the people interested in transformation of institutions. You and I, as well, support that group of people.

You ask if any of these students will give us an affidavit? I’m sure they will. I’ve not asked them. … You further suggest that maybe some of these stories are far-fetched: ‘Some of these assaults happened during rehearsals – surely they would have been witnessed by other students?’

Surely they WERE witnessed. When Wa Mamatu stuck his fingers into a young girl’s vagina during a rehearsal, there were three other students in that dark rehearsal room. They were all lying down with their eyes closed. As per Wa Mamatu’s instruction. One of her classmates told me that they couldn’t see what happened because it was dark. Remember he switched the lights off. But he said he was aware of him kneeling at the girl. After the rehearsal the girl ran out in tears.

But what is witness? Did he actually see what he did? No…. Rape doesn’t happen in the same way as we fall off stairs. It usually happens beneath the staircase. In the dark. Behind the door. You know that, right? You know what’s why it’s so difficult to prove it; to find witnesses.

None of the students interviewed, those were the ones willing to talk to me – there are others who were not willing – had suggestive SMSs from Wa Mamatu. A grown lecturer in Cape Town who received ‘numerous emails and SMSs from Wa Mamatu of a highly sexual and inappropriate nature’ deleted all correspondence. She wanted nothing of him in her life, or on her computer.

Surely” if you were her, you would also delete it?! And yes, as incomprehensible as this might be to you, they did surely press the delete button.

And now let me get to your last point: ‘If we can’t prove rape – let’s not mention it.’

A girl laid a charge of rape at a police station. The complaint was laid on the 28 March 2012 at the Alexander Road police station. The girl who laid the charge has been in therapy and has left the university. She is also unemployed at the moment.

Norman refused to speak to police who came to the campus to question him. So they asked and asked again (via his secretary to speak to him). So they walked into the lecture hall and arrested him on charges of rape.

I am a journalist. Surely that’s enough for me to report that fact.

The girl says to her friends (I interviewed 3 of them) and to me (we briefly spoke and then she said she doesn’t want to give me an interview) that she was raped by Norman in his office.

How do we prove rape? Are you saying that we only write about the one in nine women sufficiently raped to prove it?

I am deeply worried about your mail and your questions… as journos we have to show an awareness to the special dangers of relying on uncorroborated evidence (of a complainant). Yet, we also have to make sure that victims of sexual violence are not deemed untrustworthy because they cannot produce the smoking gun/ the torn apart vagina/ the fingerprints of sperm,” I ranted.

They spiked my story.

I gave it to another Sunday newspaper (with the blessing of the Times.)

After days of editing; questioning me; nitpicking over vague time references; locations; number of witnesses; times of day or night, the news editor demanded that the women I interviewed retell the essence of their accusation to a lawyer under oath.

The editor wrote me a short, curt rank pulling mail saying:

Without a police charge sheet, without a complaint to the university channels, we need to build our own body of evidence. That’s what the affidavits are for. Without them and without laying a charge, it is hearsay. My job as an editor is to take it from hearsay into defendable report.”

Go do your journalistic job, is basically what she shouted at me.

I called her the p-word. I think. But I did go off and begged and convinced some of the students to speak to a lawyer they don’t know and retell, under oath, what happened to them. In the end, I could use only the references of those students who were willing to repeat their accusation under oath. Those who were too scared to speak under oath, I had to remove their accusations.

The Sunday Times published the story in the end. I worked my arse off. The women and men who accused the lecturers had to work their arses off – also emotionally. Some of them decided to talk to their parents, leading to a profound strengthening of their relationships.

Shortly after publication Wits launched a high-level investigation into the allegation. Both lecturers were sacked. The women who testified walked away having been heard; taken seriously, leaving in their wake real institutional change. The newspaper was not sued.

And the point? I’m proud of that work because I was forced to do the hard work a journalist has to do, turning hearsay into fact.

I hope the Mail and Guardian’s Rumana Akoob and Simon Allison have editors and news editors who made them do their jobs as journalists well and proper. Otherwise they should go do PR for … Steinhof or KPMG. Or whoever, because Equal Education and Doron Isaacs are being annihilated. DM


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