Vic­tory at last in sex pest bat­tle

CityPress - - News - SIZWE SAMA YENDE sizwe.yende@city­press.co.za

Jus­tice has come five years late, but it is a bit­ter­sweet vic­tory at last for a for­mer Univer­sity of Venda pro­fes­sor who put up a daunt­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment bat­tle against her boss. With­out any sup­port from the univer­sity’s Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Coun­cil, Pro­fes­sor Thidzi­ambi Phendla (55) is now hav­ing the last laugh af­ter the South Gaut­eng High Court or­dered the coun­cil to take dis­ci­plinary mea­sures against Univen vice-chan­cel­lor and prin­ci­pal Pro­fes­sor Peter Mbati, in line with the in­sti­tu­tion’s sex­ual ha­rass­ment pol­icy.

Mbati al­legedly pestered Phendla for sex and when she re­sisted, he hounded her out of her job as dean of the School of Ed­u­ca­tion in 2011 on trumped-up fraud and cor­rup­tion charges.

The Na­tional Pros­e­cut­ing Au­thor­ity only of­fi­cially with­drew the charges in Oc­to­ber, which re­lated to al­legedly ac­cept­ing a R1 000 bribe to award a clean­ing ten­der.

Mbati claimed that Phendla’s al­leged “im­pro­pri­ety” was un­cov­ered in a foren­sic re­port by Deloitte, but Phendla was never shown the re­port dur­ing the dis­ci­plinary hear­ing of mis­con­duct that led to her ex­pul­sion from the univer­sity.

“A wrong pic­ture was painted that I was charged for fraud and cor­rup­tion, and I then laid sex­ual ha­rass­ment charges to re­tal­i­ate,” Phendla said this week.

Phendla’s bold fight came at huge cost to her fi­nan­cially and emo­tion­ally. She lost her job; spent R320 000 on le­gal costs; her mar­riage crum­bled (although she later mended it); she suf­fered from de­pres­sion; and al­most be­came an al­co­holic af­ter get­ting into the habit of fin­ish­ing two bot­tles of red wine a day.

But worst of all, the fraud and cor­rup­tion charges de­stroyed her fu­ture work prospects. She lost out on two jobs at the Univer­sity of North-West, one at the Cape Penin­sula Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, an­other at the In­ter­na­tional Man­age­ment Univer­sity of Namibia and an op­por­tu­nity to serve on the board of the SABC.

All th­ese years, Phendla kept her­self busy by su­per­vis­ing master’s and doc­tor­ate stu­dents in her pri­vate ca­pac­ity, and she “stayed away” from al­co­hol.

“Women tend to climb the lad­der and kick it away. I want to put more rungs on the lad­der for women to climb. What about the do­mes­tic work­ers and women mak­ing tea, if highly em­pow­ered women can be pushed out of their jobs like this?

“One fe­male col­league at Univen told me: ‘You’re my sis­ter, I wish I could help, but Mbati is my boss’,” she said.

Phendla ini­tially laid a rape charge against Mbati af­ter he al­legedly forced him­self on her, but Lim­popo po­lice in Tho­hoyan­dou al­legedly did not in­ves­ti­gate the case. She then ap­proached the Com­mis­sion for Gen­der Equal­ity (CGE), which in­ves­ti­gated in 2014 and found that:

The al­le­ga­tions that she was in­ter­nally charged for mis­con­duct be­cause she re­fused Mbati’s sex­ual over­tures were “con­vinc­ing, con­sid­er­ing the man­ner in which the dis­ci­plinary process was con­ducted”.

She was dis­missed on charges em­a­nat­ing from the foren­sic re­port, yet she was not given a copy to fa­cil­i­tate her own de­fence.

The de­ci­sion to in­sti­tute dis­ci­plinary pro­ceed­ings based on the re­port she did not have ac­cess to was “quid pro quo ha­rass­ment”.

The coun­cil and the univer­sity failed to take the next step af­ter me­di­a­tion be­tween her­self and Mbati col­lapsed, which left her stranded and frus­trated with­out sup­port from cus­to­di­ans of the in­sti­tu­tion’s sex­ual ha­rass­ment pol­icy. Mbati then went to the South Gaut­eng High Court in a bid to have the CGE re­port set aside, but the court last month up­held it and ruled that the coun­cil had to im­ple­ment the univer­sity’s sex­ual ha­rass­ment pol­icy.

Univen coun­cil chair­per­son Ser­obi Maja said the coun­cil was await­ing a re­port by me­di­a­tor Lav­ery Modise. “We will take it from there,” Maja said. But Modise’s re­port, which City Press has a copy of, clearly says that pro­vi­sions of clause 5.2 of the univer­sity’s Sex­ual Ha­rass­ment Pol­icy should kick in fol­low­ing a stale­mate in re­solv­ing the mat­ter. The clause calls for a for­mal pro­ce­dure whereby the hu­man re­sources di­rec­tor must de­mand a writ­ten ex­pla­na­tion from an of­fender and, if there is a prima fa­cie case of mis­con­duct, a charge sheet must be drawn up.

The chair of the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Trans­for­ma­tion Net­work board, In­grid Tufves­son, said: “We urge the re­cal­ci­trant Univen man­age­ment and coun­cil to im­me­di­ately com­ply with the court or­der, sus­pend and charge [Mbati] for sex­ual ha­rass­ment and re­in­state [Phendla] in her for­mer post.”

Phendla, how­ever, said that she did not think she would ac­cept her job back be­cause she might be vic­timised again.

Mbati re­ferred ques­tions to Univen’s le­gal ad­viser, Ed­ward Lam­bani, who said the court did not or­der a dis­ci­plinary in­quiry against Mbati and the coun­cil did not in­sti­tute any charges.

“The vice-chan­cel­lor’s in­tegrity is not im­paired at all. If any­thing, he is very pleased with the or­der handed down by the high court, which ef­fec­tively nul­li­fied the re­port is­sued by the Com­mis­sion for Gen­der and Equal­ity. The court or­der has for­ti­fied the vice-chan­cel­lor’s con­fi­dence in the ju­di­ciary, which, in fact, has re­stored his dig­nity and rep­u­ta­tion,” Lam­bani said. SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word WORK and tell us what you think. Please in­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50

PHOTO: LISA HNATOWICZ

PER­SE­VER­ANCE PAYS Pro­fes­sor Thidzi­ambi Phendla. Inset: Pro­fes­sor Peter Mbati

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