GEO report to be kept under wraps indefinitely. 

An investigation into how the Wits Gender Equity Office (GEO) conducts and executes its mandate was being kept secret so it could “be used as a façade to justify changes in the GEO that will basically have the effect of disempowering the unit”.

This is according to a Wits academic who reached out to Wits Vuvuzela following the publication of an article in the Daily Maverick on April 17 about the GEO report which Wits vice chancellor Professor Adam Habib has chosen not to make public.

According to Daily Maverick, Habib commissioned advocate Adila Hassim in November 2018 to conduct an “independent assessment” of the GEO, and her report was finalised last month.

The online newspaper reported that Habib had said Hassim’s report had “reviewed the GEO’s handling of seven recent cases and acknowledges that there has been ‘pushback’ from some people accused of sexual misconduct and brought before the GEO”.  However, Habib had said that the report would not be made public, but would remain “for his eyes only” for now.

Habib told Wits Vuvuzela that the report had been commissioned “to assist the [Vice-chancellors office] in addressing some of the challenges associated with the GEO and to provide recommendations as to how processes could be improved in this regard”.

“Without the report being made public, it can actually create an environment in which it will be possible for the university to use this secret report to justify unwarranted restructuring or changes at the GEO,” said the academic who has asked to remain anonymous. The academic told Wits Vuvuzela that she had laid a complaint with the GEO in 2017 for racism and sexism.

Former director of GEO, Crystal Dicks, told Wits Vuvuzela that, “I have not seen the report, despite requests for it while I was still at Wits.” Dicks, whose contract ended in April this year, said the report “was commissioned as part of a policy review process and I needed to see the recommendations to integrate them into the policy, but was informed that it was for the VC’s eyes only. I submitted a policy review without seeing the report,” said Dicks, adding that she found this “very bizarre”.

Habib said the report would not be released publicly as it “contains the names of some individuals in matters managed by the GEO. In general, our policies require us to treat these matters confidentially”.

Danai Mupotsa, chair of the Wits Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee (SHAC), said they had discussed approaching Hassim with the VC last November.

“In principle, it is the role of SHAC to do policy reviews, and in fact we are constantly evaluating processes and policies related to the work of the GEO,” said Mupotsa. “There was a discussion with the SHAC as well as with the former director of the GEO, Crystal Dicks, about this. The language concerning what is now phrased as an ‘independent assessment’ shifted along the way. For instance in the early discussions it was presented as a question of policy … but the language concerning the report shifted from policy to procedure.”

Mupotsa also said SHAC had not been given access to the terms of reference for Hassim, or the report itself. “Which is why the committee was surprised that someone at the [Daily Maverick] seemed to have access to it. But at this meeting [in November] the VC reported on which cases were under review because we asked. It was striking that most of these cases involved alleged perpetrators who were senior staff members, with very few cases that were students,” said Mupotsa. “We asked the VC questions about the selection [of the specific cases] and methodology of the report but received no answers.”

Jackie Dugard, a member of SHAC who established the GEO in 2014 and was its director until December 2016, told Wits Vuvuzela she had not seen the GEO report.

“Neither I nor anyone at SHAC has seen the Hassim report. Perhaps releasing a redacted version to protect any confidential aspects would be appropriate in the circumstances.” she was not happy about the Maverick article.

Dugard added, “I was surprised that the [Daily Maverick] journalist would write such a one-sided piece, speaking only to alleged perpetrators. I would have thought that any serious journalist would understand that such a one-sided piece couldn’t possibly represent the gender reality at Wits.”

Habib, however, said “I have not provided the media with access to the report. I provided the journalist who wrote the Daily Maverick article with a briefing on the high level findings of the report.”

The online newspaper referenced two unnamed people who told the reporter that “they willingly co-operated with GEO processes hoping for constructive, fair outcomes. Instead, they say they were met with aggressive treatment and were subjected to questionable processes”.

According to one of them, the newspaper reported that, “what he regarded as a work-related exchange with a student saw him charged with sexual harassment. He said he was taken aback by her reaction but on reflection accepted that his actions could have been characterised as harmful. He was prepared to apologise officially, undergo sensitivity training or whatever appropriate measures the GEO decided on. His case though was never heard and he ended up having to resign”.

A former student who had laid a complaint with the GEO told Wits Vuvuzela that resigning was not the way to solve the problem. “If you have a problem with the process, challenge the process, a decision from the GEO is not final and binding.

“I really think it is a disservice to the whole process when people, who are accused, choose to opt out of it,” she said. “As a complainant generally you don’t get to opt out of this when it gets too hard.”

She said the article “is a very humanising exercise of the experience of the accused”.

“The irresponsibility in the article like that is to really go to lengths to talk about what these two individuals went through personally, that their life was ‘ruined’, is [showing] absolutely no regard of the experience of the complainant,” she said.

Wits Vuvuzela reached out to Professor Ivor Chipkin who abruptly resigned as executive director at the Wits Public Affairs Research Institute in 2018 shortly before a disciplinary process following an investigation by the GEO for alleged misconduct. While he would not answer questions about the circumstances around his departure from Wits, Chipkin admitted that he had been interviewed by Daily Maverick.

“Alleged perpetrators who are advised to leave an institution rather than to allow the hearing to happen can move on to new positions, probably also already carrying institutional and financial forms of power and authority, and can simply re-plant themselves elsewhere anew,” Mupotsa said.

Dicks agreed, saying, “If they were innocent they should have stayed to face a hearing panel.”

The academic who spoke to Wits Vuvuzela said,“I believe that the power in reports like that lies in them being made public, the legitimacy of the report lies in it being made public.”

According to Habib, his senior executive team is “exploring how best to implement the recommendations contained in the report”. To which the academic responded: “It has not been my lived experience that senior management really understands the notion of a victim centric system for fighting gender based harm.

“Unfortunately, I have experienced how little senior management at Wits including, Prof. Habib, cares about victims of gender-based harm, I have experienced it first hand,” she said.

According to Mupotsa, “The processes developed at the GEO were established to have the principle of fairness for both alleged perpetrators and complainants.” She said there was a strong commitment at Wits to address gender-based harm. “We are confronted with the enduring power of institutionalised forms of patriarchy that touch every aspect of the university’s life.”