'Sex abuse charges shouldn't stop us working in schools'
Don’t judge us all just because a few senior members are facing allegations, says Equal Education
Amid donors suspending grants to Equal Education while an inquiry over allegations of sexual harassment is underway, experts say the whole organisation should not be dismissed.
The allegations are leveled against three senior Equal Education staff members. Last month former Equal Education general secretary Tshepo Motsepe, former head of national organising Luyolo Mazwembe and co-founder and former treasurer Doron Isaacs were all facing separate sexual harassment allegations. The men have since resigned and denied the allegations against them.
This week, Western Cape education MEC Debbie Schäfer expressed her concern, saying Equal Education works in schools throughout the province. She said that while allegations were made by members of the organisation‚ it is not clear if children are involved.And‚ should these allegations be true‚ “this is hardly the type of person we need working in our schools”. Schäfer has ordered the organisation to stop operations at Western Cape schools due to accusations of sexual misconduct until they’ve met with her office.
In a press statement the organisation stated that the MEC’s request to not engage pupils in the Western Cape “does not only reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of EE’s work, but is also overly broad and unjustified”.
Dr Jaco Deacon of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools said the work that Equal Education has done in the sector should not be tarnished by the misconduct of a few individuals in the organisation.
“The work that Equal Education has been doing, from trying to eradicate pit latrines to improving infrastructure in schools, has made a difference in thousands of lives of children. It’s unfortunate that donors are missing the point.“This is [three] individuals and not the organisation … that doesn’t mean this is the nature of the organisation. It will be sad if individuals succeed in bringing down the organisation,” Deacon said.
University of Johannesburg senior research associate Professor Mary Metcalfe said the situation could open up the space for better debate. “It could be used by schools and education departments to deepen conversations in their internal and external interactions about securing safe spaces for those who have experienced sexual harassment to be heard and protected.”
She said ensuring that while all allegations are taken seriously, these allegations are also subjected to due process enquiry, including confidentiality of both the accused and the accuser.“All organisations should be able to give an account of their internal practices of deepening sensitivity to patriarchy, power and harassment and should have explicit processes for this to be reflected on, and to be reported on.
“These are the principles that should apply to all organisations, and especially organisations that work with young people, and not only to EE. The comments apply to all schools and all organisations working with schools. The good work EE has done stands in the public domain, and should not be discredited on the basis of the investigations currently underway,” Metcalf said.
Interim national co-ordinator Leanne Jansen-Thomas added the organisation was determined to continue its work with pupils, parents and teachers to tackle an unequal education system. “Despite working under circumstances that are in flux this remains a priority.”Three of the NGO’s donors have since suspended funding while the inquiry process into the sexual harassment allegations is under way.
Following media reports that Comic Relief and Wallace Global Fund have suspended funding, Jansen-Thomas said a third donor, Sigrid Rausing Trust, had also suspended its grant.
“Comic Relief has asked us to ring-fence and not spend their current grant to EE while the inquiry process is ongoing. We are currently assessing the practical impact of this on EE’s immediate work.“Wallace Global Fund is quoted in the media as saying that it will not consider new grants to EE while the latest inquiry is underway. We anticipate no immediate impact on EE as this seems to exclude their current grant to EE,” Jansen-Thomas said.The organisation is currently engaging with donors to assess the impact of their decision.Some of the prominent cases Equal Education has been involved in:
• The #LongWalkToSchool was their fight for pupil transport in KwaZulu-Natal since 2014. Their legal challenge in the Pietermaritzburg High Court in November 2017 succeeded in getting the KwaZulu-Natal Education Department to begin to finally deliver buses and taxis to schools in Nquthu.
• The #FixTheNorms court case continues in the Bhisho High Court. If the court agrees with Equal Education, it will mean the country’s law on school infrastructure will be tightened, and there will not be any excuse for any failure by the nine provinces to comply with the deadlines which the law sets for providing essential infrastructure at schools, the organisation said.
• Continued fight for the eradication of pit latrines at schools.