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Johannesburg - Sexual harassment at Wits was so prevalent that it was considered “part of the culture” in some university departments.
This is according to Wits alumni who were interviewed by a committee appointed by the university to investigate the nature of the problem at the institution.
The committee, which was appointed following a spate of sexual harassment allegations which led to the university firing three lecturers, released its independent inquiry report late last month.
According to the report, the former students believed that the university has always been aware of sexual harassment but chose not to act until it was revealed in the media.
“There is a view that in order to get the university to take sexual harassment seriously, it is necessary to use the public media,” reads the report.
Wits came into the spotlight earlier this year when the Sunday Times reported that former lecturer Tshepo wa Mamatu was sexually harassing his students.
Wa Mamatu was the first casualty of the sexual harassment scandal and the university has since fired two other lecturers – Last Moyo and Rupert Taylor – after they were also found guilty of sexual harassment.
The committee also found that there were sexual harassment cases that went on for six months to a year without a decision being made or formal disciplinary proceedings against the perpetrators.
“During this period, complainants are in a state of turmoil and uncertainty regarding the outcome, and are unable to find closure.”
A student laid a complaint of sexual harassment two years ago and still had not received any feedback on the case, revealed the report. The committee further found that none of the people who were tasked with dealing with sexual harassment at the university had training, and also that there was no support for staff who handle complaints.
Another worrying factor was that staff members were not provided with the sexual harassment policy when joining the university even though their contracts state that they have to abide by all policies of the institution.
A study that looked at sexual harassment at universities published in the SA Journal of Human Resources Management two years ago found that sexual harassment policies at higher education institutions in the country were “problematic”.
The study was conducted in all universities and academics from junior lecturers to professors and deans of faculties participated.
Meanwhile, the Wits report also revealed that students felt their complaints were treated with “mistrust and suspicion” by the university.
“For example, a student was asked by a staff member to act out the incident so that the authorities could understand what happened.
“The humiliation involved in this was acute and forced the individual to relive the experience in a careless and hurtful manner” it reads.
Students further said they were discouraged from laying formal complaints because they were made to feel that their actions would ruin the alleged perpetrator’s career.
After the release of the report, the university formed a senior executive team to deal with the issues raised in the report.