NGO’s sexual ha­rass­ment woes grow

Equal Ed­u­ca­tion co-founder Doron Isaacs and ac­tivist Zackie Ach­mat im­pli­cated by staff

Mail & Guardian - - News - Ru­mana Akoob, Si­mon Al­li­son & Carl Col­li­son

Equal Ed­u­ca­tion’s co­founder Doron Isaacs has been re­peat­edly ac­cused of sexual ha­rass­ment, and se­nior fig­ures in the or­gan­i­sa­tion, in­clud­ing prominent ac­tivist Zackie Ach­mat, have been ac­cused of cov­er­ing his tracks, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Mail & Guardian re­veals.

This has emerged from interviews with more than a dozen fe­male Equal Ed­u­ca­tion staff mem­bers, both cur­rent and for­mer, who al­lege an in­sti­tu­tional fail­ure to ad­dress sexual ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions, go­ing back nearly a decade, and a con­certed ef­fort by the or­gan­i­sa­tion to cover up the scan­dal. This in­cludes three women who told the M&G they were sex­u­ally ha­rassed by Isaacs.

Ach­mat’s name was men­tioned as some­one who sought to in­tim­i­date women against speak­ing out. Both Isaacs and Ach­mat deny all the al­le­ga­tions against them.

The new al­le­ga­tions come at the end of an al­ready dif­fi­cult week for the civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tion, which cam­paigns for bet­ter ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion in South Africa.

On Mon­day, Equal Ed­u­ca­tion re­leased a state­ment con­firm­ing that its gen­eral sec­re­tary, Tshepo Mot­sepe, had re­signed in April af­ter sev­eral women made al­le­ga­tions of sexual ha­rass­ment against him — al­le­ga­tions he de­nies. The state­ment came in re­sponse to ques­tions sub­mit­ted by the M&G.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion did not dis­close at the time — pub­licly or in­ter­nally — that an­other se­nior of­fi­cial is also be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for sexual ha­rass­ment. On Wed­nes­day, the M&G re­vealed that Luy­olo Mazwembe, the for­mer head of na­tional or­gan­is­ing, was ac­cused of of­fer­ing a “job for sex” to a vol­un­teer. He de­nies this al­le­ga­tion against him, but ad­mits to “send­ing notes” and “promis­ing a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship” to a vol­un­teer.

Threats and ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions

The his­tor­i­cal sexual ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions, from mul­ti­ple women con­nected with Equal Ed­u­ca­tion or in the ac­tivism space, date back to 2009 and cen­tre on Doron Isaacs, the co-founder of the or­gan­i­sa­tion and for­mer deputy gen­eral sec­re­tary. He is cur­rently Equal Ed­u­ca­tion’s trea­surer, a nonex­ec­u­tive role.

Isaacs de­nies any wrong­do­ing, say­ing that the al­le­ga­tions are part of a “ma­li­cious smear campaign” against him. He added that the M&G is act­ing at the be­hest of some­one with a per­sonal agenda.

The most se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tion came from Jane — not her real name, although her iden­tity is known to the M&G — who al­leged that Isaacs “made a lot of un­to­ward re­marks to me and sent me sex­u­ally sug­ges­tive texts, ask­ing what I was wear­ing and if I touch my­self”. She was work­ing on a project in the ac­tivism space at the time. This be­hav­iour cul­mi­nated in Isaacs at­tempt­ing to force him­self on her, she claimed. “Af­ter din­ner one night, he took me to a his­tor­i­cal stone house on the top of Kalk Bay where he started to kiss me force­fully and tried to take my pants off. He is not a big guy but I still had to fight him off. He did per­sist for a bit, then was of­fended be­cause I re­jected him,” she said.

Jane said af­ter she con­fided in some­one about the in­ci­dent, Isaacs came to her house and threat­ened her. “He said if I dare tell any­body else I would never work in ac­tivism again in South Africa. I told him I was not scared of his threats and it seemed like I was the first per­son to stand up to him,” she said.

Isaacs cat­e­gor­i­cally de­nied forc­ing him­self on Jane, and dis­putes the de­tails of her ac­count. He says they had a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship and that “this was not a first date”.

“I deny in the strong­est pos­si­ble terms the out­ra­geous claim that I ‘at­tempted to re­move her pants and force [my­self] on her sex­u­ally’. It feels ridicu­lous to be say­ing this but I am con­gen­i­tally cau­tious in the bed­room to the point where women have of­ten told me to stop ask­ing them if they are okay and just en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said.

He also de­nies threat­en­ing to de­rail Jane’s ca­reer. “I had no ‘con­nec­tions’ or power to wield of any kind. I have never, ever made such a threat but if I had made it then it would have been laugh­able.” He said he al­ways “sought to pro­mote a cul­ture of open­ness and equal­ity in the work­place”.

Af­ter the al­leged Kalk Bay in­ci­dent, Jane’s next step was to call Zackie Ach­mat, one of South Africa’s most prominent ac­tivists, who was chair of Equal Ed­u­ca­tion’s board at the time. Ac­cord­ing to her ac­count, Ach­mat told her she had brought the ha­rass­ment on her­self be­cause she “wore too much make-up”.

“He [Ach­mat] told me that I was a bro­ken per­son and said I needed to pull my­self to­gether,” she said.

Ach­mat de­nies say­ing any of this. “I would never tell a per­son that what they wear or their make-up is re­spon­si­ble for how men should be­have to­wards them.”

Sexual ha­rass­ment at the work­place

Isaacs is also ac­cused of sexual ha­rass­ment in the work­place. The M&G spoke to cur­rent and for­mer Equal Ed­u­ca­tion staffers, vol­un­teers and for­mer “equalis­ers” — the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s term for high school stu­dent vol­un­teers — who painted a con­sis­tent picture of in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour span­ning nearly a decade.

Sev­eral women spoke about re­ceiv­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate mes­sages from Isaacs; or re­ceiv­ing at­ten­tion from him that made them feel un­com­fort­able.

Isaacs said that, although he has par­tic­i­pated in con­sen­sual on­line erotic chats in the past, he has never done so with Equal Ed­u­ca­tion staffers, and “if ever a woman had ever ex­pressed the slight­est dis­com­fort I would have im­me­di­ately apol­o­gised and ceased.”

Isaacs is “widely known as a sexual preda­tor in these [NGO] cir­cles”, said a source close to the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

But his stature within the or­gan­i­sa­tion and South Africa’s ac­tivist com­mu­nity makes it dif­fi­cult for women to speak out. “It’s a big thing. Peo­ple know who Doron is. Doron is Equal Ed­u­ca­tion. He is cel­e­brated, but also highly feared. So how you re­spond to him, we all fear how it will af­fect your job or what­ever.”

Zackie Ach­mat’s came up re­peat­edly in the con­text of cov­er­ing up for Isaacs’ al­leged ha­rass­ment. Two women, in­clud­ing Jane, claimed that they were con­tacted and threat­ened by Ach­mat di­rectly. There was a per­cep­tion from the other sources that Ach­mat would in­ter­vene on Doron’s be­half. “Zackie does pro­tect Doron. There was a fear of reprisals on Doron’s be­half by Zackie,” said one woman.

Ach­mat strongly de­nies these al­le­ga­tions. “I have never threat­ened any­one who wished to file a com­plaint of sexual or other mis­con­duct. Have I spo­ken firmly to peo­ple who have spread ru­mours or al­le­ga­tions of sexual or other mis­con­duct with­out ev­i­dence as fact or faith? Most def­i­nitely.”

Ach­mat added that “in re­sponse to these al­le­ga­tions I will ask the or­gan­i­sa­tions I work with to es­tab­lish an in­de­pen­dent in­quiry into my con­duct to de­ter­mine whether I have ever cov­ered up sexual or other mis­con­duct or ob­structed jus­tice for sur­vivors”.

Equal Ed­u­ca­tion se­nior man­age­ment is also ac­cused of cre­at­ing an at­mos­phere that did not pro­vide sup­port to vic­tims of sexual ha­rass­ment. “An­other rea­son it has taken so long for peo­ple to speak out is be­cause the women in se­nior man­age­ment don’t give you any im­pres­sion that it would be safe for you to come for­ward. They shel­tered, praised and wor­shipped these men. It felt like high school most of the time. If you weren’t part of their crew then you would not be pro­tected,” said a source.

Con­tro­ver­sial in­ves­ti­ga­tion

In 2011, ru­mours that Isaacs was in­volved in sexual ha­rass­ment were fly­ing around the or­gan­i­sa­tion. To ad­dress them, Isaacs asked man­age­ment to in­ves­ti­gate the ru­mours.

In an email sent by Ach­mat to board mem­bers re­quest­ing that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion takes place, he first states his “dis­com­fort with the re­quest to ex­am­ine ru­mours that in­volve adult sexual be­hav­iour where there is no com­plainant”, but says he was per­suaded to look into them as they were “dam­ag­ing to Doron Isaacs and by ex­ten­sion to Equal Ed­u­ca­tion”.

In this email he de­scribes Isaacs as “one of the best lead­ers of the post-apartheid pe­riod” and said “the or­gan­i­sa­tion must con­sider any re­quest he makes for repa­ra­tion” if claims were proven to be un­founded by the panel.

Equal Ed­u­ca­tion ap­pointed an in­ves­ti­ga­tion com­mit­tee led by Paula En­sor, a board mem­ber. At the time she was also the dean of hu­man­i­ties at the Univer­sity of Cape Town. Also on the four-per­son panel were Sean Fein­berg, Michelle Adler and Nathan Gef­fen.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion cleared Isaacs’ name un­con­di­tion­ally, say­ing there was “not a shred of ev­i­dence to sup­port any claim or sug­ges­tion that Doron had an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with an EE in­tern …

“We thank Doron for bring­ing these con­cerns first to the at­ten­tion of the Equal Ed­u­ca­tion man­age­ment com­mit­tee, and sub­se­quently for writ­ing to the chair­per­son of the board to in­di­cate that the mat­ter re­quired his at­ten­tion,” it con­cluded.

But sources have raised se­ri­ous ques­tions about the im­par­tial­ity of the panel, and whether due process was prop­erly fol­lowed. Con­cerns were raised about the close­ness of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the mem­bers of the in­ves­ti­gat­ing com­mit­tee and Isaacs.

An­other source, who con­ducted an in­for­mal par­al­lel in­ves­ti­ga­tion of her own at the time, told the M&G that En­sor had con­ducted the in­ves­ti­ga­tion in a way that “def­i­nitely pro­tected Doron”.

En­sor says the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was con­ducted fairly and fol­low­ing all due process. “In my view there was not a con­flict of in­ter­est. I was not close to Doron at that stage … I be­lieve we car­ried out our man­date. If there are doubts about fair­ness, I would strongly en­cour­age a re­open­ing of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion [so] that it can be de­ci­sively laid to rest.”

Equal Ed­u­ca­tion has now con­sti­tuted an in­de­pen­dent panel, “which will ex­am­ine EE’s record of deal­ing with mis­treat­ment in the work­place, EE’s poli­cies and pro­ce­dures in re­gard to sexual ha­rass­ment, and the or­gan­i­sa­tional norms and cul­ture which cur­rently ex­ist at EE”.

The panel will be led by Lawyers for Hu­man Rights’ Claire Bal­lard. The or­gan­i­sa­tion has also called for sub­mis­sions from any­one with fur­ther in­for­ma­tion on cur­rent and past in­stances of sexual ha­rass­ment and re­lated mis­con­duct by per­sons as­so­ci­ated with Equal Ed­u­ca­tion.

Equal Ed­u­ca­tion de­clined to re­spond to spe­cific ques­tions from the M&G, say­ing that it had not been given suf­fi­cient time to do so.

A dozen fe­male staff mem­bers al­lege in­sti­tu­tional fail­ure to ad­dress sexual ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions

‘Ma­li­cious’: Doron Isaacs (above) says sexual ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions are un­founded and are be­ing pur­sued by some­one with a per­sonal agenda. Ac­tivist Zackie Ach­mat (be­low) re­luc­tantly asked for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Isaacs in 2011, in which he was...

Pho­tos: David Har­ri­son.

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