South Africa


Wolves in sheep’s clothing: Sexual harassment in the public interest sector

Photo by Ahmed zayan on Unsplash

Equal Education is not the only organisation that is caught up in allegations of sexual harassment and predatory behaviour in the public interest sector workplace. We are angry that this unacceptable behaviour goes unpunished because people who perpetrate it do ‘good work’.

We have witnessed public outrage over the sexual harassment allegations levelled against three senior male staff members of Equal Education. This has been a very public and harsh reminder of the realities we face in our own spaces.

We are young black women working as human rights lawyers at various organisations in the public interest sector – a sector we are proud to be part of. As members of the sector, we have observed with great concern the lack of responses from public interest law organisations with regards to the Equal Education sexual harassment saga.

We would like to shed light on the insidious forms of sexual harassment in our sector and the impossible position that women, particularly black women, find themselves in as a result. We call on our sector to interrogate the “beyond reproach” disposition and to disabuse themselves of the notion that our sector is somehow immune to sexual harassment, racism and other abuses of power. It is these unchecked exercises of power, in the form of white privilege and patriarchy, that result in the toxic environment being unearthed at Equal Education.

Many of us writing this article have experienced and are survivors of sexual harassment and/or racism in the sector. We are not in denial about the existence of widespread patriarchy and sexual harassment in the sector, however as black women we are unheard and unseen. Could it be that we are simply not considered important enough for our safety and bodily integrity to be considered paramount?

Equal Education is not the only organisation that is caught up in allegations of sexual harassment and predatory behavior in the workplace.

  • In 2017, a prominent public interest law organisation with a national footprint was called on by a number of women to deal with serious allegations of sexual harassment. The senior attorney implicated, despite a finding of guilt by an independent investigation and a recommendation of dismissal as an appropriate sanction, was allowed to resign before the organisation’s Executive Committee made a decision about his continued employment at the organisation. This had the effect of leaving his reputation intact while the complainants remain traumatised by their experience, feeling violated and disappointed by the process. They remain susceptible to further victimisation and reprisal.

  • We have further seen how female interns and new female staff members are propositioned by senior males in organisations. While this may seem innocuous, the power imbalances at the core of these interactions leave young women in a very vulnerable position. This is often brushed off as innocent interaction between peers, however, these relationships are also often predicated on hopes of longer-term appointment or desperation on the part of the intern to acquire a more permanent job in the sector.

  • We have seen how our male counterparts accept sexual favours from volunteers and community members with the unspoken promise of expediting their cases or frequent employment.

  • We’ve seen how young volunteers (some as young as 16) from grassroots organisations, student movements and community formations are preyed on by our colleagues without regard to the power they wield, their age and gender. Male colleagues would openly proposition them, inviting them as if they had the power to say no to those advances. When not the perpetrators, some in management positions turned a blind eye and, when approached, plead ignorance.

  • We have sat in uncomfortable meetings with male supervisors who paid no mind to the substance of the discussion, instead they stared at us, undressing us and blatantly reducing us to sexual conquests, never once making eye contact.

  • We have witnessed how male staff advance for having potential and females, particularly those who are black, are expected to demonstrate excellence and pander to whiteness in order to advance in the sector.

  • We have seen how our organisations have prioritised institutional reputation over individual protection because funders start pulling out at the first sight of danger.

All this has been brought to the attention of leaders in the sector, through various means. The response has been inadequate.

For black women these incidences together with our organisations’ inability to effectively deal with them colour our experience in the sector in an intersectional way. We feel discriminated and violated in ways that often do not fit neatly within the categories of either “racism” or “sexism”. The general failure to recognise the dual effect has resulted in black women’s invisibility and lack of legal recourse.

We ask ourselves – how do we deal with our sector and its contradictions?

But perhaps before we proffer rational or sound approaches to dealing with this, we ought to express our anger.

We are angry at the men who exert the power that sexually violate women in the sector.

We are angry at their friends, men and women, in leadership positions who cover up their behaviour and further marginalise women who come forward and those who are silent about their sexual harassment experiences.

We are angry at the prioritisation of race over gender.

We are angry that sexism is unpunished because people who perpetrate it do “good work”.

We are angry that the predominant choice we are often left with when reporting sexual harassment is to drop cases on which we work and love because our sexual predators also work on them or the odds are against us, with women we trust protecting their male counterparts. Many have felt or continue to feel that the only other choice we have is to leave the sector and/or the organisation.

We are angry that when we do leave, because we have been failed by the sector, we have human rights cases only carved out to be done by mostly white men as if they are the only people who have the ability to care about the plight of poor black people in this country, the plight of our people and that of ours.

We are angry that we leave because social justice organisations, in their attempts to resist transformation, will always find fault with us when we report sexual harassment cases that often intersect with racism.

We are angry for our friends and for ourselves at our contradictions of holding a level of influence to effect change for our clients while we remain susceptible to sexual harassment, racism and abuse in the social justice sector. And sometimes we are even angry at the lack of hope we inspire in those who come after us wanting to do this work, while knowing too well that there is little to shield them from the abuses they will encounter.

Obviously sexual harassment is not unique to the social justice sector. However, it is the hypocrisy of this sector that makes the covering up of sexual harassment cases even more appalling. Not to excuse toxic and corrupt behavior elsewhere, but ours is a sector that will use loudspeakers to call out the toxicity of others with no consciousness to confront demons from within. It is a sector full of people who do social justice work for fulfilment, power or even public affirmation and want to be thanked with our bodies and at the expense of our skins. It is actually reprehensible that the social justice sector has very little culture of accountability for the ills within the sector.

Can our sector take us seriously enough to actually deal with these issues beyond talks at the Public Interest Law Gathering? If we are going to claim any moral position and call others to account for their toxic behavior maybe we should try to do the same.

By “we” we mean white men who dominate the sector, black men who use power over their female counterparts, white women who lead the sector and cover up for their friends who are called out on their behavior, black women who overlook the experiences of those who come after them when they cry for help, and donors who watch in silence and accuse movements such as the Black Workers Forum for destabilising a sector that clearly needs a shift in order to resettle with some integrity in modern-day South Africa.

This moment ultimately calls those invested in the sector; those who believe in its power, and those that value its contribution, to step back, introspect and do better.

Step up and live up to the principles we fight for and believe in.

Start believing women who bring these allegations forward.

Create environments that are conducive and spaces that empower faith in systems.

Punish perpetrators.

We must all be feminists .. .and if you can’t be one, be an ally. DM

This article is written by civil society lawyers Basetsana Koitsioe, Amanda Rinquest, Elgene Roos, Thabang Pooe, Thandeka Kathi and Wandisa Phama. It is written in their personal capacities.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted