Sexual harassment victims must cower when their abusers stay in power

SEX PEST: Former ambassador Norman Mashabane. Pic. Edward Maahlamela. 16/01/2007. © Sowetan. 

Norman Mashabane, fired for sexual harrassment, but is now in the Limpopo legislature.

Norman Mashabane. Sunday Times, 28/10/2007. Pg. 33
SEX PEST: Former ambassador Norman Mashabane. Pic. Edward Maahlamela. 16/01/2007. © Sowetan. Norman Mashabane, fired for sexual harrassment, but is now in the Limpopo legislature. Norman Mashabane. Sunday Times, 28/10/2007. Pg. 33

Kubi Rama

Kubi Rama

"Women are the new suicide bombers; they are the Delilahs trying to bring down the Samsons. They come together and accuse men of these things (sexual harassment) to bring men down."

So said a caller to a popular Johannesburg radio station on March 14 during an evening talk show.

The ANC Limpopo secretary, Cassell Mathale, and I were guests on the show. You might well wonder what could have elicited such a shocking observation.

We were discussing the recent appointment of Norman Mashabane, former South African ambassador to Indonesia, as a member of the Limpopo provincial legislature.

In 2001, the Department of Foreign Affairs found Mashabane guilty of 21 charges of sexual harassment. Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma reinstated him pending the outcome of an appeal.

In June 2003 Lara Swart, who worked at the embassy in Indonesia, laid new charges of sexual harassment against Mashabane.

An internal disciplinary hearing found him guilty. Dlamini-Zuma overturned this verdict on appeal too. Swart took the minister's decision to the Pretoria high court.

The high court upheld the verdict of the disciplinary hearing that Mashabane was guilty and that the decision to fire him was valid.

In presenting the position of the ANC in Limpopo, Mathale argued that Mashabane had not been convicted of a criminal offence and was still engaged in procedures to clear his name. Mathale did not say what these procedures were.

Constitutionally, Mashabane is still able to serve in public office in any position because he does not have a criminal record.

But Mashabane has a proven track record of sexual harassment. Do we not hold those in public office up to a higher standard?

Mashabane's record speaks of his inability to exercise good judgment, a lack of respect for women and a questionable commitment to the ANC's vision for gender equality. These are not desirable qualities in a leader.

This also raises issues about how we deal with sexual harassment. What legal standing does a decision taken by an internal disciplinary hearing have?

The Employment Act of 1998 and the Code of Good Practice on the handling of sexual harassment in the workplace, amended in August 2005, stipulate that employers "take the necessary steps to address the complainant in accordance with this code and the employer's policy".

While the amended code does not refer to criminal and civil procedures available to the complainant, the 1998 Code clearly states that "a victim of sexual assault has the right to press separate criminal and or civil charges against an alleged perpetrator, and the legal rights of the victim are in no way limited by this code".

The challenge in this regard is the existing rules of evidence. Rules of evidence require that there are eyewitnesses and corroboration. But sexual harassment happens in private.

Sexual harassment is a crime and perpetrators should be charged and sentenced accordingly. In addition to the internal disciplinary hearing, taking Mashabane to a criminal court would have clarified any doubts about the legal standing.

Levels of gender violence in South Africa are incredibly high.

What message does Mashabane's appointment to a position of political power and leadership send to the public? What about the women he harassed?

Victims of gender violence are often reluctant to report these crimes for fear of further victimisation. Mashabane's appointment shows a lack of respect for the complainants' experiences and for their courage in taking up the matter.

The Limpopo ANC's position is confusing and contradictory.

The ANC dismissed former Parliamentary chief whip Mbulelo Goniwe for sexual harassment. In that case, the ANC acted decisively and lived up to its commitment to women's rights. The Mashabane decision does not.

The talk show presenter asked whether someone found guilty of sexual harassment and then fired should "pay" forever. This is a difficult question.

Dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace and not within the formal legal system, results in a great deal of confusion. How can the formal justice system become more accessible to complainants of sexual harassment?

The Departments of Labour and Justice, unions and civil society bodies need to address these issues urgently.

Mashabane has not taken a position in the private sector, but in public office. We deserve leaders with integrity, good judgment and respect for people, women included.

South Africa must become a country where terms such as "suicide bombers" and "Delilahs" are not used in reference to women because they exercise their right to safe spaces in which to live, work and participate as citizens.

lKubi Rama is CEO of the Gender and Media Southern Africa Network. This excerpt is from the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.