Let's be clear, sexual harassment, whether physical or verbal, is an unwanted act that violates a person's dignity. When such an allegation is made, the focus of attention should be on the victim, and their account of events should be taken seriously, as no person will bring unwarranted attention to themselves by claiming the title of a victim of sexual harassment.
The latest allegations levelled against Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana shifted attention away from the seriousness of the crime to a political volley of accusations. This is not the first time that South African politicians have used a serious problem affecting all women in South Africa to score political points against each other. In 2017, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Economic Freedom Fighter leader, Julius Malema, accused each other of gender-based violence.
These incidents demonstrated how women's grievances and harms are simply treated as fair game for common politicking.
Much of the attention shifted away from the alleged crime and became ammunition for ridiculing political elites. The problem is not only in the political landscape; it also happens in the private sector.
Sexual harassment in the workplace has become common and is increasing, with over 51 830 sexual offences committed annually, based on a study by the University of South Africa.
In a country that is declared the rape capital of the world, it is a sad situation that the harassment allegations were not dealt with the sensitivity and seriousness it deserved. This was an opportunity to educate the public on the importance of personal space and consent, and more importantly, for leadership of our country to show that they are serious about addressing sexual and gender-based-violence. The fact that the attention is on whether the minister should resign or be fired negates the support that the victim needs.
And this speaks to the bigger problem within South Africa, where violence against women has become the norm and impunity rampant. We need to think seriously about the pressure that victims in such cases face. They are suddenly thrust into the unwanted limelight and media attention, subjected to fear of his/her professional future that could lead to the victim wanting to withdraw the case, or faced with secondary traumatisation that arises due to the case being haphazardly handled?
We are all aware the South African Police Service is known for not responding and dealing appropriately with sexual offences. Another obstacle for the victim would be the lack of prosecution from the courts, as only a small percentage reach the courts, and less than 10% result in a conviction.
And this is because the term "sexual harassment", its meaning is interpreted differently across dispute resolution platforms.
For example, in one case, because the victim did not report the incidents and demonstrated clearly that she was being harassed, the court found that it was not sexual harassment and found that the perpetrator simply behaved "inappropriately."
The ruling of the court is in contravention of the Department of Labour's Code of Good Practice (2005) on handling sexual harassment in the workplace. The code provides appropriate procedures to deal with sexual harassment and prevent its recurrence. More specifically, its objective is to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Code clearly states unwelcome conduct: "previous consensual participation in sexual conduct does not necessarily mean that the conduct continues to be welcome." This highlights another problem in South Africa. Even the best policies and laws do not change the mindset of those in charge of adhering to it.
Within the workplace, it is commonly observed that the employer's interpretation of the Code of Ethics for employees' changes depending on who is involved in the reported case. If the perpetrator is a person in a position of authority, then the power balance shifts to the perpetrator, with the victim becoming ostracised by their colleagues for even reporting the case. The cost to the victim is far higher in terms of financial, emotional and mentally, as well as impacting the victim's home life post the incident.
For the victim, recourse will be difficult to obtain, and his/her experience is also often silenced. Many people still misunderstand what sexual harassment is. So, they often negate the experiences of victims.
However, the code makes it clear that sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, including physical, verbal, or non-verbal.
One of the most challenging things about sexual harassment is that the onus is on the victim to prove that it happened. The experiences of the victims/survivors are often not the focus of an employer's efforts but rather damage control on behalf of the alleged perpetrator. This needs to change.
"I was recently on a late-night flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, sitting in a window seat. A male passenger sat in the middle seat. During the flight, I felt very uncomfortable as he would 'inadvertently and often' rub his arm on my side, almost touching my side boob. I then moved to a more comfortable position avoiding him touching me and using my arm as a block to any unwanted touching. As the 2-hour flight progressed, he spoke to me, and I got to know that he was part of the legal fraternity and was on his way to the Cape Town high court for a case. When we disembarked, I was at the baggage collection with my colleague when suddenly, this same male passenger put his arm around my waist from behind. I was shocked and alarmed.
"Immediately, my body repulsed this unwanted and unwarranted action. My colleague saw my reaction and quickly pulled me towards her, and she rebuked him for touching me without my consent. Thankfully, she was our Gender Expert in the organisation and reacted spontaneously, sensing my discomfort. I had to second guess my social etiquette. Did my responding to his conversation unintentionally give him consent to behave so familiarly with me?
"I quickly recollected our conversation: it was brief and purely about what work we each did. I felt uneasy, and my personal space was seriously violated. I felt dirty. Although I was fully clothed, I felt like rushing to the hotel and having a bath to cleanse myself". (Karen Pillay, Business Continuity Manager CSVR personal experience)
If I felt like that, can you imagine the trauma victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, like the victim who is currently in the media attention of the Godongwana allegations, feel daily and if they are suppressed by those in positions of power or by the politicking that emanates in response to their willingness to come forward? This type of mishandling of the case by politicians, media and the workplace management or reporting powers acts as a deterrent to other victims who suffer in silence.
The work of CSVR promotes peaceful, equal, and violence-free societies. Our mission is to promote sustainable peace at community, national, regional, and global levels by understanding, preventing, and addressing the effects of violence and inequality.
This piece was originally published by IOL.