More Links in Health Programs

Sexual Harassment: Speak Out!

Aug. 9, 2007

By Pieter van Zyl

The young woman at the hearing is being grilled relentlessly. ''Who is the father of your child?'' she's asked.

What has that got to do with this, she wants to know. That's private information. But her interrogator won't back down. ''Who is your boyfriend?''

There are objections to the questions but the hearing panel insists she answers them.

''When did your father die?'' the questioner asks.

She manages to mumble a reply. Then she bursts into tears and collapses.

It's difficult to believe the young woman being rushed to hospital is the complainant in the case – not the accused. And that the harsh interrogator is the man she has accused of sexual harassment.

It's an old story: a woman who dares bring a charge of sexual harassment against a man is humiliated all over again at the hearing.

When Nomawele Njongo succeeded in bringing a South African political heavyweights to book after formally complaining of sexual harassment she became a beacon of hope to thousands of victims – women especially – who'd been in similar situations. The message was clear: justice will prevail if you have the courage to speak up.

But late last month she was subjected to the intrusive questioning described above at an ANC disciplinary hearing in Johannesburg.

The details of the case are widely known. Late last year Njongo was asked to assist at a party at the Cape Town home of the ANC's then parliamentary chief whip, Mbulelo Goniwe. When the guests had left he abused his position to try to get her into bed, she later alleged in a formal complaint to the party.

In December the ANC's national disciplinary committee summarily fired Goniwe for sexual harassment and barred him from standing for public office or representing the party for the next three years.

But another ANC committee ruled there'd been procedural errors in the disciplinary process and Goniwe was allowed a new hearing. This meant old wounds would be reopened.

In an exclusive interview with YOU in January Njongo was full of hope for her future. She planned to resume her studies for a BCom degree through Unisa and bring her son to stay with her in Cape Town.

''My first thought was, 'Thank God, I'll be able to sleep again','' she said after the committee had upheld her complaint.

Little did she know what lay ahead. It's enough to make victims everywhere wonder if putting themselves through the ordeal is worth the effort.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel, says Sonja Ensink (formerly Grobler). Two years ago the former secretary at National Magazines made legal history when as the complainant in a sexual harassment in the workplace case she was awarded R776 000 in damages. The ruling underscored the principle that employers are legally obliged to create a work environment in which employees are protected against sexual harassment.

''Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination prohibited under the Employment Equity Act,'' says Susan Stelzner, head of employment law at Cape Town law firm Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs.

Companies should have a policy that encourages victims to speak out, she says. It should allow the victim access to trauma counselling when reporting a case and both before and after a disciplinary hearing.

''The policy should state that any employee who becomes aware of sexual harassment has to report it. Failure to speak up should be a disciplinary offence.''

Employers should also conduct regular training sessions on sexual harassment in the workplace.

''A disciplinary hearing is not a court of law so a witness can refuse to answer questions,'' Stelzner stresses. ''However it's in the victim's interests to reveal as much as possible so action can be taken.''

Elsink adds: ''It's important to speak out for the sake of your humanity, even if it means there'll be a stigma attached to you for the rest of your life.''

She has no regrets about her action and she's writing a book about her experiences to encourage and assist others in her situation. ''Tell the truth from the start,'' she advises.

''Provide as many details as possible.''

She remembers once walking into the office of Gasant Samuels, her former boss. He asked her to shut the door and that was later offered as evidence ''that we were having an affair''.

Ensink kept everything he gave her, including a letter apologising for the first kiss imposed on her and even a Bible he'd bought her. ''Keep everything. It can later be presented as evidence at the disciplinary hearing.''

If you're threatened it's important to find someone reliable to support you. In Ensink's case this person was the company's labour consultant.

''My psychologist and psychiatrist also helped me through it all. I ended up suffering post-traumatic stress.''

Be aware of everything that could be used to discredit you as an unreliable witness, she says. ''Talk to a therapist or a good friend about all the so-called skeletons in your cupboard and practise your responses in case they're brought up.''

Get help as soon as possible – legal support, or join a support group of victims who've had similar experiences. ''Sadly only at the end of my case did I get in touch with women at work who'd been through the same thing.''

Men don't realise what devastating impact sexual harassment has, Ensink adds. ''Imagine how it would feel to be forced to face your harasser every day because your job is your bread and butter.''

Men are one of the most important links in the battle against sexual harassment, says Mbuyiselo Botha of the South African Forum for Men, an organisation that tries to give boys positive role models.

''Be a man and speak up when a colleague is being sexually harassed. Go with her to the disciplinary hearing as one of her witnesses. Keeping quiet makes you just as guilty,'' he says.

''The big problem is men are taught to see women as prey to be hunted – they think they can just grab them. There's still so much educating to do. But it takes just one man in a company to say enough is enough to make a difference.''

Often the more power a man has in a company the more he abuses it to get what he wants, Botha says. ''We need to learn to listen to what women have to say. She's not overreacting if she gets upset about something you've said or done. That's how she feels and you should be sensitive to it.''

''It's worth it speaking out,'' Stelzner says. ''If you don't the problem will persist and other women will get hurt. I've often seen if one woman comes forward then others who've kept quiet are encouraged to do so.''


To see the article as it appeared in YOU, click on the link below:

Sexual Harassment Pg 1.pdf

Sexual Harassment Pg 2.pdf

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from Huisgenoot/YOU.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top