Wits fires sex pest lecturers, adopts new policies

One of South Africa’s top research institutions, the University of the Witwatersrand, has fired a third lecturer for sexual harassment after dismissing two others in July for the same offence. A fourth case is still being investigated, it was revealed last week, as the university published a report on sexual harassment on campus.

At a briefing following what he described as an “exhaustive investigation”, Vice-chancellor Adam Habib apologised to the students and took full responsibility for the abuses committed on campuses. He said the university should be a “safe space, and we will ensure it is”.

Earlier this year the University of the Witwatersrand, known as Wits, launched an investigation focusing on complaints relating to specific staff or students, whose cases were to be referred to an external law firm to investigate and deal with appropriately.

This followed a Sunday Times article claiming that a drama lecturer had abused a number of his students.

A second investigation, led by the director of the Wits Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Professor Bonita Meyersfield, and a different external law firm, was a campus-wide independent inquiry into sexual harassment, the object being to assess existing and potential policies that should be in place at the university to prevent sexual harassment.

It also sought to establish whether sexual harassment and quid pro quo – something for something – relationships were commonplace, whether staff and students were aware of policy and procedures on harassment, and whether they felt comfortable reporting incidents.

The investigation’s report was completed in August and publicised last week. It concluded that the university had “a vague policy on sexual harassment”, making it difficult for people to come forward.

The report recommended that Wits create a clear and broad definition of sexual harassment, and said it was evident that most of the staff and students were unaware of the university’s policy. “Some are aware there is one, but do not know its content or where it may be accessed, which is one of the reasons why people are reluctant to broach the subject to anyone.”

The report said the institution’s unpredictable approach to dealing with harassment “created an unclear environment for people who want to come forward”.

Additionally, “when the cases are reported, they are not taken further as those receiving the complaint don’t know how to deal with the complaint”.

Habib said the investigation had been intensive and that, at first, students and staff had been reluctant to respond to the inquiry. “But in the last two months of it, more and more people started coming forward.”

Wits has now prohibited liaisons between lecturers and undergraduates, although its plan to monitor such relationships may well create ripples among those worrying about privacy violations.

Habib welcomed the report, saying parents of youngsters who had been harassed were justifiably angry, as he would have been had they been his children.

“The report critically highlights the inadequacy of the university's systems to address rumours and allegations decisively, or to support those affected by predatory sexual behaviour.

“The university has adopted a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment, and we hope the swift action taken in these three cases sets a clear example that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in any form on our campuses,” Habib said.

In April, University World News reported on the Wits investigation. The article pointed to research by Professor Amanda Gouws, a political scientist and gender studies expert from Stellenbosch University, who said sexual harassment at South African universities was a major issue.

She said a team of researchers had done a comparative study of Stellenbosch University, the University of the Western Cape and the University of Botswana to discover how sexual harassment differed from campus to campus. All of the institutions experienced the problem.