By Caro Malherbe and Shandukani Mulaudzi
Wits has pledged to undertake a multidimensional approach to issues of sexual harassment on campus by formulating a special task team initiated by the vice chancellor’s office. These measures and others were announced today at a press conference called to make the findings of an independent inquiry into issues of sexual harassment at Wits University.
Vice chancellor Prof Adam Habib said he takes full responsibility for the abuses that happened at Wits and that the report highlights the failure of the university’s system to address rumours and allegations decisively.
Habib added that the university welcomes the recommendations and will form a Senior Executive Team to start a plan of action on how the issue of sexual harassment will be dealt with, in line with the culture of the institution.
Special Task Team
The special task team will originate from the VC’s office and comprise various experts from within the university including gender specialists, the transformation office, sexual harassment advisors, legal expertise and student representatives.
Habib said student representatives will not be solely from the SRC but from various sectors of the student body.
Difficulties of investigation
Prof Bonita Meyersfeld, the director of the Centre of Applied Legal Studies at Wits was part of the team who compiled the report together with lawyers from law firm Norton Rose. She said this was one of the most difficult inquiries to undertake.
“The inquiry was one of the most difficult tasks for the whole team to undertake because we were dealing with our own university. But it was important and totally worth it.”
Meyersfeld said students and members of staff were initially reluctant to speak to them but in the last two months of the inquiry they were more willing to come forward.
“The emotion involved in both students and staff alike is evident throughout the university and administration. Students felt they were not listened to and not taken seriously.”
Meyersfeld said the students were also worried about following the legal process as they were worried about being re-traumatised by speaking to various entities about the same incident.
Members of staff, although they shared the same sentiments also worried about the threat posed to their careers if they came forward.
Two cases have already been dealt with and the accused persons have been dismissed. Habib said there are two other cases that are on-going.
“Two have been dismissed and another who began investigations will hopefully be released to me tomorrow. The fourth is yet to begin.”
Meyersfeld said while there were other perpetrators discovered during the inquiry. However cases were dealt with on a confidential basis and unless students asked for their accusations to be pursued, they were not.
Habib added: “We pursued various other avenues to get to the bottom of it [new cases]. But in those instances our findings yielded no further investigation.”
Habib thanked the media for blowing the whistle on issues of sexual harassment as this forced the university to take immediate action.
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