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One of the three complainants at the centre of a sexual harassment disciplinary hearing which resulted in the dismissal of a senior academic at Wits University has spoken out.
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Wits University’s efforts to preventing sexual harassment, which caused a scandal in 2013 and led to the dismissal of three lecturers, is “not that good,” said Prof Melissa Steyn, director of the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies.
“Commitment to policies of sexual harassment on the universities part and the university community as a whole was not that good,” said Prof Melissa Steyn, director of the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies.
Steyn made her comments to Wits Vuvuzela following a roundtable discussion held last week that was poorly attended.
“The turn out to Friday’s roundtable discussion was not great at all, only about 25 people attended,” Steyn said.
“We have a lot of commitment from a small group of people,” said Steyn. However, wider support from the Wits community had not yet been forthcoming.
“We all have to care about these issues, otherwise these problems will not go away,” said Steyn.
Since its establishment last year in response to recommendations of a formal inquiry into sexual harassment in 2013, the Gender Equity Office has received over 100 cases of sexual and gender-based harassment at Wits.
The inquiry followed a series of reports about sexual harassment published by Wits Vuvuzela in 2013. The reports led to the suspension and disciplinary hearings of four lecturers. Three of the lecturers were ultimately dismissed while a fourth resigned.
“In recent years, the university has revamped relevant policies and has overhauled awareness campaigns, reporting structures and legal processes to deal with any form of abuse, particularly sexual harassment of any form,” Steyn said.
She said that while the university had received over 100 complaints of sexual or gender-based harassment, there were probably more cases going unreported.
“As any institution, or society more generally, we understand that reported incidents do not represent the full picture, and we are working to encourage reporting of incidents as well as to act against perpetrators of gender-based harm,” Steyn said.
The roundtable discussion on Friday was to reflect on sexual harassment at Wits and if there were any changes taking place.
Former Wits University senior lecturer Tsepo wa Mamatu has publicly apologised for the first time since his dismissal last year for sexual harassment.
“I apologise to my community, my society and every woman for failing them,” wa Mamatu said in the message posted on his Facebook account.
“I will not be mute in my shame. I AM SORRY”, said wa Mamatu.
Wa Mamatu wrote that after his dismissal from the university he “went into a journey of exile, into a space where I asked of myself difficult and hard questions”.
Wa Mamatu apologised for his “lack of judgement” and admitted that he had abused his power over students.
“I apologise for abusing my power, vested on me by the university, to fail to be consistent with principles and values of best practice,” he said.
In addition to his former students, wa Mamatu also offered apologies to his friends and family as well as “my community, my society and every woman for failing them.”
Wa Mamatu signed off his Facebook apology with the words: “I am at your feet”.
Wa Mamatu’s apology comes after months of denying that he had sexually harassed students.
In a series of articles reported by Wits Vuvuzela last year, Wa Mamatu maintained that he had not sexually harassed anyone but rather had relationships with them.
Wa Mamatu was due to be a panelist at The African Arts Institute debate on Monday evening but appeared to have cancelled his appearance. The debate follows the removal of his play, By My Grave, from the Cape Town Fringe festival.
- Wits Vuvuzela: Dismissed “sex-pests” speak: Dr Last Moyo and Tsepo wa Mamatu react to their sackings, August 2, 2013.
- Wits Vuvuzela: ‘Sex pest’ hearings concluding. July 26, 2013.
- Wits Vuvuzela: Exclusive: Tsepo wa Mamatu speaks. May 31, 2013
- FULL REPORT: Wits University’s sexual harassment report, September 2013
- Wits Vuvuzela: ‘Sex pest’ denies new play is about sexual harrassment, August 31, 2014
Inappropriate gestures, sexually-charged comments and even jokes of a sexual nature are still fairly common at Wits University despite last year’s high profile dismissals for sexual harassment.
Regarded as “minor” infringements, these incidents are just as serious and need to be reported, says Professor Jackie Dugard, director of the Wits sexual harassment office (SHO).
Dugard spoke to Wits Vuvuzela earlier this week about the less obvious forms of sexual harassment that occur between lecturers, staff members and students.
She emphasised that “unwanted attention, unwanted gestures, touching and comments,” by lecturers to students as well as staff to staff could fall under the “category” of sexual harassment.
“Minor” infringements are “just as important to report as major infringements” because both are “serious offenses that must be taken seriously.”She said the determination of the seriousness of an infringement depends on circumstance and context.
“If we’re talking about the more clear-cut scenario where the attention is unwanted, then anything of a sexist or sexual nature is unacceptable.”
“Sexual harassment is sexual harassment no matter how big or small the allegation,” she said.
Dugard says that all reports of sexual harassment regardless of their nature, are recorded by her team. “We report it all and take it all very seriously so that if there are repeat transgressions we have a historical record that might collectively add up to something much more ‘serious’.”
The newly-formed SHO has already recorded a variety of issues which include “sexist” material being shown by a professor in a staff meeting and incessant commenting about a student’s appearance by a tutor.
Student on student harassment is also an issue that Dugard and the sexual harassment team hope to tackle. As examples of the problem Dugard says earlier this year a case of student on student rape at a party was reported to the SHO. Another case involved the intimidation of a female student by her ex-boyfriend.
Lecturer to Student Contact
Despite the differentiation between offences, Dugard said she is “not sure how helpful it is to categorise or try to delineate too rigidly between serious and minor” infringements because “according to Wits policy, if you violate the Wits code of conduct or any related policies such as sexual harassment… you can be subjected to a disciplinary inquiry and sanctioned accordingly”.
“Anything that falls outside of a professional relationship is not acceptable. In addition anything that falls outside of professional mentoring is not okay, unless it is wanted and reciprocated.”
Dugard said that at the moment there “isn’t an outright ban at Wits on student-staff relationships,” but it is something “being considered” by the university.
“Some universities have such policies in order to eliminate a lot of grey areas.”
Wits Vuvuzela: Former Witsie is new sexual harassment office head, February 6, 2014
Wits Vuvuzela: Wits academic resigns amid sexual harassment investigations, October 31, 2013
Wits Vuvuzela: Wits sexual harassment inquiry complete, September 4, 2013