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#MeToo build-up in the activist community

  • SexualHarassment2
Doron Isaacs, a founding member and now the former treasurer of the social justice organisation, Equal Education (EE), is at the centre of a media storm as he faces multiple claims of sexual harassment.
by GILLIAN KLAWANSKY | May 24, 2018

How does sexual harassment happen in an organisation dedicated to correcting social injustices? And with the rise of the #MeToo movement, are the tides changing in standing up to such behaviour?

In the past month, Isaacs, former general secretary Tshepo Motsepe, and former head of national organising Luyolo Mazwembe, have resigned – all facing allegations of sexual harassment.

In articles in the Mail & Guardian newspaper, EE has been accused of covering up wrongdoing and creating an “organisational culture of intimidation”.

Friends say Isaacs acknowledges having “misread signs” from women, albeit mainly in an online context and only in his private life. Isaacs told the SA Jewish Report: “I deny the allegations and will await an independent inquiry by EE where there will be an opportunity for due process and consideration of all the evidence. Never, ever, ever in my life have I been forceful towards a woman, nor issued threats.”

Isaacs – a former Habonim leader who is vehemently anti-Zionist – has resigned from EE, pending an investigation by the company.

Speaking on The Eusebius McKaiser Show on 702 on Wednesday, activist Zackie Achmat – a former chairperson of the EE board who’s been accused of covering up for Isaacs – denied the accusations. Yet he was taken to task by McKaiser when he referred to the “rumours” that led to the first inquiry into Isaacs’ behaviour which took place in 2011.

Such language is a default position of incredulity, said McKaiser. Isaacs, who initiated that inquiry, was exonerated. But this finding has been discredited due to the presence of many of his friends on the panel.

Charlotte Fischer, a former EE employee, also spoke to McKaiser in a pre-recorded interview and made a statement on her Facebook page. This was about how she was treated in 2011 when she spoke up on behalf of a number of women who came to her with sexual misconduct grievances against Isaacs. “As a result, I was isolated and punished and formally removed from other organisations for – on written record – ‘spreading malicious rumours’,” she writes.

On the radio she also spoke of how she was accused of slander by Paula Ensor, an EE board member and then dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town. Fischer replied to Ensor: “It’s only slander when it isn’t true.”

Fischer says she had testimonies from the victims and even a section of an academic thesis that was written about it. However, according to Achmat, she chose not to hand this in to the 2011 panel investigating Isaacs, or any authority since, and has not still not done so.

“Perpetrators do bad things and they need to be held accountable – and they tend to not be able to repeatedly perpetrate unless there are enablers around them,” she writes.

Undoubtedly a hot topic in the past year, the #MeToo movement has changed the tide when it comes to speaking up against sexual abuse. While she acknowledges that the movement has had some impact, Lisa Vetten, a researcher specialising in gender-based violence and who is based at Wits University, isn’t convinced it’s been that marked.

She says: “About four or five years ago, I was approached by someone at EE. It hadn’t happened to her, but she was observing this. At that point in time she didn’t know what to do. Sexual harassment’s not a new problem. #MeToo has had some effect, but the question is whether that will be sustained.

“It’s one thing to publicly identify with this having happened to you; it’s quite another thing to get recourse. Sometimes you can speak out and get such a bad response that it shuts down the likelihood of people reporting incidents in future.”

There are also deeper issues at play in the workplace. “Women are very vulnerable at work and may struggle to stand up to men in more powerful positions,” explains Kyla Maimon Edinburg, a clinical psychologist with a special interest in gender issues.

“Often they value their jobs and rely on their income. They’re also worried about being stigmatised as reputation is such a valuable commodity in the workplace.

“Many women worry that they may have done something to cause unwanted sexual behaviour, doubt that they will be believed, or don’t feel that their claim will be treated appropriately.

“There’s a strong sense that it’s better to be quiet and avoid trouble. All of this together makes them less likely to report sexual abuse.”

The fact that these things are allowed to happen in an organisation established to counteract injustice has added fuel to the fire that’s engulfing EE. “We have to realise that people are not uniformly progressive in all aspects of their lives,” says Vetten. “You find people who have all the right things to say around race and homosexuality but are completely blind around gender, for example.

“The NGO sector, including organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Oxfam UK, was exposed for very unattractive behaviour.

“It becomes a difficulty when you’re working for a social justice organisation and you trade on your moral virtue. You have to hold yourself to a higher standard. The difficulty with these organisations is that because they think they’re doing the morally right thing, it blinds them to careful scrutiny of themselves.

“They can also be a bit sloppy in having sexual harassment policies in place. Very often, they’ll also have charismatic and visionary leaders who do great things for the organisation.

“So, if they’re accused of something like this, they’ll ask: ‘Could that person be capable of it?’ and, ultimately, who is more valuable to the organisation: the visionary leader or the volunteer?”

In the case of activist organisations, things are even further complicated. “As the victim here, you assume you’re on the side of good. Moreover, the people concerned are the ones you’ve admired, which can be disillusioning. It can also be paralysing – if you speak up, what will the impact be on the good work that the organisation is doing?”

So, what can women in these situations do? “The starting point is to have policies in place,” says Vetten. “Otherwise, you have to rely on the NEDLAC Code of Good Practice. Failing that, victims can go to the board. If they’re unresponsive, you need to get legal representation.”

Yet it’s often a losing battle as individuals lack the resources that companies have access to, and their lives can be made miserable.

To prevent such situations from occurring in the first place, it’s necessary to have workplace sexual harassment training in place, continues Vetten. “But training can be narrowly legalistic,” she says. “It should focus on sexual ethics because some of this behaviour may be grey. Sexually coercing someone is hardly ethical. One must look more broadly and ask: In a workplace, what is ethical conduct? Training should focus on ethical behaviour and workplace culture.”

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