Victory at last in sex pest battle
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
PERSEVERANCE PAYS Professor Thidziambi Phendla. Inset: Professor Peter Mbati