South Africa


Independent inquiry clears Equal Education leaders of sexual harassment claims and cover-up

Independent inquiry clears Equal Education leaders of sexual harassment claims and cover-up
Zackie Achmat is pictured during the #UniteBehind coalition press conference at St George’s Cathedral on August 03, 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

In May 2018, the Mail & Guardian ran a series of reports making damning allegations against the leadership of NGO Equal Education, accusing prominent activists of perpetrating and covering up sexual harassment in the organisation. An independent inquiry into the matter, commissioned by Equal Education, has now produced its report. Finding no evidence to support the claims, it slams the newspaper for ‘gutter journalism’ – although one of three panelists leading the inquiry has distanced herself from the findings.

Activist Zackie Achmat’s face was emblazoned on the cover of the Mail & Guardian’s 18 May 2018 edition, together with the headline: “Zackie Achmat accused of sexual harassment cover-up at NGO”.

Inside the newspaper, the article teased by the cover began:

Equal Education’s co-founder Doron Isaacs has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment, and senior figures in the organisation, including prominent activist Zackie Achmat, have been accused of covering his tracks, an investigation by the Mail & Guardian reveals”.

In response to this article, and a number of others on the same topic by the Mail & Guardian, Equal Education commissioned an independent inquiry into the allegations. The NGO was under substantial pressure from certain quarters to take decisive action, with Equal Education’s funders being petitioned to cut financial support.

Released this week, the panel’s final report has scathing views on both the Mail & Guardian and sexual harassment complainants who make anonymous claims.

One panelist, however, has since taken the decision to distance herself from the report’s findings.

The panel appointed by Equal Education to investigate the Mail & Guardian’s claims was chaired by retired Judge Kathleen Satchwell, alongside Wits Psychology Professor Malose Langa and UCT Law Professor Rashida Manjoo.

Although Manjoo participated in all the proceedings of the inquiry, she subsequently indicated that she did not wish to associate herself with the findings on the basis that she “disagrees with so much of the content”.

In an email to Judge Satchwell contained in the report, Manjoo wrote that one of her reasons for resigning from the inquiry was that “this report reads like a judgment and makes findings which include exonerating individuals – despite us not hearing the victims (by their choice), not discussing fully the 19 statements received (which we agreed was not evidence – but which we cannot pretend does not include substance worthy of our attention), and also not having tested the authenticity of documents produced, especially by Isaacs and Achmat”.

The Women’s Legal Centre had also argued that the panel’s approach was not sufficiently victim-centred, and that its inability to impose any legal sanctions rendered the inquiry “toothless”. It also declined the panel’s invitation to attend the hearings as it was representing complainants “insisting on non-disclosure and limited participation”.

The 142-page report, authored by Judge Satchwell, summarises the inquiry into three main aspects of the allegations against former Equal Education leaders: that former treasurer Doron Isaacs attempted to sexually assault a fellow activist, that former chairperson Zackie Achmat was complicit in the cover-up of this and other incidents, and that the internal inquiry convened by Equal Education in 2011 to investigate sexual harassment complaints against Isaacs was biased in favour of him.

The main complainant cited in the Mail & Guardian reporting was a woman given the pseudonym “Jane”, who claimed that on an occasion in late 2009, Isaacs had forced himself on her sexually before being fought off. Jane further alleged that Isaacs had threatened that if she told anyone about the incident, she “would never work in activism again in South Africa”.

Isaacs denied to the panel that Jane had “pushed him away or told him to stop any action of any sort”. He acknowledged, however, “the possibility that Jane had a different subjective experience of their evening together”.

Isaacs also provided the panel with emails exchanged between the two after the incident, seemingly attesting to a still amicable rapport.

He further produced emails between leaders of another activist group in which Isaacs was involved, discussing the fact that Jane had subsequently failed to produce a documentary for which she already had been paid. This, Isaacs suggested, was the real source of the subsequent conflict between himself and the complainant.

The panel was unable to test these claims with Jane, as she declined to participate in the inquiry process. It found that Isaac’s version of events “is therefore unchallenged” and, by virtue of the available email evidence, “partially corroborated in certain significant respects”.

Achmat was accused in the Mail & Guardian reporting of having dismissed Jane’s complaint about Isaacs at the time because she “wore too much makeup” – a claim that Achmat denies, the newspaper recorded.

The Mail & Guardian also reported that “Zackie Achmat’s name came up repeatedly in the context of covering up Isaac’s alleged harassment”, citing another woman who made similar claims to Jane’s.

Achmat told the panel that his relationship with Jane had soured as a result of the documentary she failed to deliver, and as a result of a rumour that Jane had made an anti-Semitic comment about EE leadership.

He also produced a Facebook message sent by Jane to Achmat two weeks after the alleged Isaacs incident in which she asked him for book recommendations and named the title she was currently reading “courtesy of Doron”.

Achmat said his next contact with Jane was some months later, when he wrote a long Facebook message to her expressing his disappointment in her with regards to her allegedly anti-Semitic comment, but also expressing his desire that she would succeed in her career.

In the message, submitted to the panel, Achmat references “makeup” in the following way: “I fear that behind your makeup there is pain and [in]security – do not let it stop you from earning a living”.

Judge Satchwell writes in the report:

Whilst some might try to place a gendered meaning upon Achmat’s reference to Jane’s “makeup” as referring to facial cosmetics, I can find no basis whatsoever in any putative attempt at such reading. “Makeup” does not only refer to mascara, eye shadow, lipstick and powder.”

In this context, Satchwell writes, “makeup” clearly referred to the woman’s “presentation of self”.

The report continues: “Since no mention had been made at this time by Jane to Achmat of any untoward or distressing incident with any person whatsoever, let alone Isaacs, it is difficult to see how any reading could be made that Achmat was telling Jane that ‘she had brought the harassment on herself because she wore too much makeup’.”

The panel could not find any evidence that Jane had indeed immediately contacted Achmat after the Isaacs evidence, as the Mail & Guardian reported, or that he had dismissed her complaint on the basis that she wears too much makeup.

The chronology and content of the Facebook messages do not, in any way, support the allegations as set out in the Mail & Guardian article,” the report states.

The panel also investigated allegations reported by the Mail & Guardian that the 2011 Equal Education internal hearing into Isaacs’ alleged misconduct was fundamentally flawed and biased in favour of Isaacs.

The hearing, which included Equal Education board members Paula Ensor and Nathan Geffen, was given its terms of references by Achmat in a memo which urged them to take into account the leadership role played by Isaacs.

The report states: “Both Professor Langa and Judge Satchwell are critical of Achmat’s reference to Isaacs’s contribution to the struggle for social justice as being inappropriate and potentially trespassing upon the independence of the hearing.”

The hearing cleared Isaacs of wrongdoing, but Ensor was subsequently approached by an individual who accused the hearing of being a sham, and said she had been approached by three women who had experienced sexual harassment from Isaacs while working at Equal Education.

In May 2018, Mail & Guardian reported the complainant as saying that Ensor told her to produce the women in person to make allegations, or cease spreading “slander”.

The complainant, writes Satchwell, “believes that this was aimed at shutting down the voices of the women who had complaints. But it seems to me that this was very specifically aimed at [the complainant] and no one else – she was making allegations without producing any proof thereof. There was no attempt to control anyone else at all.”

Ensor, finds the panel, “cannot be criticised for wanting to arrange to meet confidentially with any woman who had complaints rather than using [the complainant] as an intermediary”.

Given that the Equal Education hearing had no evidence to go on other than rumours reported by an intermediary, and that no formal complaint had been laid against Isaacs, the report concludes that its process and findings were “not incorrect” under the circumstances.

It does note, however, that the hearing could have “given more careful regard to those issues raised” and “could have been more open-ended in their recommendations to the board on further action which might have been taken as regards the organisation itself”.

It adds that it might have been advisable for Equal Education to convene an open discussion at the time about sexual harassment and internal policies.

Satchwell reserves harsh criticism for the fact that the complainants cited by the Mail & Guardian were quoted anonymously.

I do believe that 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 writes.

What has been published using words and ideas and information from anonymous persons appears 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. There is no indication that Isaacs or Achmat were offered anything more than an opportunity of denial of the allegations or that they were offered an opportunity to give a full response as they have done in this enquiry – after the horse had bolted the stable door. There was no urgency to the publication of this newspaper article in May 2018 – after all, the events concerning Jane went back some 9 years to 2009 and the now criticised EE Human Resources Subcommittee hearing was in 2011.”

The report continues:

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, i.e. member of the security police, against persons who were identified and named in circumstances where they had no opportunity of reply and where untested propaganda could rule the roost.”

Former Equal Education board member Nathan Geffen told Daily Maverick: “I am relieved that the inquiry is complete and that there is no finding of a conflict of interest or cover-up in the 2011 investigation, nor harassment or intimidation. I am pleased that such a detailed and reasoned report has been produced.”

Geffen added: “The most important thing now is that people assist Equal Education to be able to move on and do its vitally important work of holding the government to account for the state of schools.” DM

This story was amended on 10/12/2018 to reflect the fact that neither Isaacs nor Achmat are currently in leadership at Equal Education.


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