A KZN man tells of his ordeal of being wrongly accused of sexually harassing a colleague.
Durban - It is not always easy for a man, who has been falsely accused of being a rapist, to come out in public and share his ordeal and the effect it had on his relationship with his family, colleagues, community and society.
Sexual harassment in the workplace places a heavy burden on both parties before the veracity of the claim is even established.
It is known to affect an employee’s dignity, bodily integrity, job security and personal safety.
But no one understands the effect it has on the accused, especially when the claims are false.
In fact, the maxim “innocent until proven guilty” takes a backseat.
For this reason, employers are advised to develop clear procedures to deal with sexual harassment in a sensitive, efficient and effective way.
In writing this piece I wish to share my ordeal about the false accusations of sexual harassment that have been widely reported in the papers.
It began when a happy working relationship turned into an ugly chain of events as a result of a combination of factors that had been orchestrated and co-ordinated by a few senior officials, who had an interest in getting me fired for reasons known only to them.
They had earlier tried to get me fired so that a friend of theirs could take my job.
I was accused of being a pervert who preyed on a young intern. Innocent communication between me and the woman in question was turned into evidence of the deed.
The accusations aroused feelings of despondency, betrayal, anger, followed by questions of why me? What will I tell my wife and kids? Will I lose my job? Am I a bad guy? Am I a bad citizen? Do I hurt people? Do I commit crime?
While I was in a state of confusion, the matter was leaked to the media.
At this point the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration’s Code of Good Practice on Sexual Harassment, which states that employers must ensure confidentiality during the disciplinary process, went out the window.
The accusation against me soon dominated the grapevine. Colleagues and management could not properly handle the matter and caused a division among the staff – those who supported me because they knew about the plot and those who were sympathetic to the supposed victim.
I had to explain myself every time I met a colleague. Some would call when I was at home but I could not speak freely in front of my family because I had not told them. I resorted to answering the phone outside, which made my wife think I was having an affair.
The colleagues and friends I once trusted became unreachable, the ones with whom I shared happy moments with at work, were nowhere to be found. In short, I lost friends and colleagues and became a stranger at home.
As time went by I lived in the hope that the truth would absolve me. And it did.
The support I received from many friends and colleagues encouraged me to seek justice. However, my family were still in the dark and I felt like I betrayed my wife and the vows we took when we got married.
Seeing my two kids, a girl and a boy, felt difficult and nerve-racking.
Their dad was accused of being a person I always prayed to protect them from.
During the disciplinary hearing, it was clear a decision had been made. The opportunity to discover the truth was turned into a platform to prove my guilt and get me fired.
I began to believe in the saying that in war, truth is the first casualty.
I assured my representative that the Almighty is always on the side of those who tell the truth.
On the home front I lived a lie. From the time I was suspended I would try to maintain the usual routine: taking the kids to school and collecting them in the afternoon. I did this believing that I was protecting my wife from the stress and trauma of knowing.
What they didn’t know was that I would take the kids to school, go to the gym, the bar and then collect the kids from school in the afternoon, all the while pretending to have been at work.
I made the usual daytime calls to my wife and always told her how much I loved her. This went on for a month and a half.
Throughout the time I could not sleep properly. I would drift off just as it was time to wake up to bath the kids and prepare lunches for my wife and kids.
I cursed the day for it brought pain and heartache to see people going to work.
I hated the noise people made when they laughed. I hated to see laughing people. I hated the noise made by people and their cars; I had fallen in love with the night.
At night, I would talk to myself. I would wake up and sit outside to look at the sky. I watched the stars and moon. I listened to the quietness of the night and it brought peace to my soul.
I did not know what stories would be carried in the newspapers. I hated the day because I feared that the newspapers may be writing incorrect reports about me.
I hated the malls because I believed everyone was looking at me. I hated to see the night giving way to the day for the day did not deserve life; it was the day that brought so much pain and agony.
I became the night watcher and I would welcome the night with both hands. In my forlorn conversations I would beg the night to stay a little longer.
I cried from time to time, and the kids noticed the change in their dad’s life. They would ask: “Are you fine daddy? Were you crying daddy?” Sometimes I said it was headache, and they would place their hands on my head and beg me to be strong because the headache would soon go away.
With their hands on my head and while connecting with their souls, I prayed for God not to take away my job because with it goes my children’s education and the food I provide.
Life in the bedroom changed. The kiss on my wife’s forehead, and whisper of “good night, I love you” was the only bedroom moment of love and passion, for the night was calling me outside.
After a long disciplinary hearing and conciliation-arbitration the truth came out.
A verdict of not guilty was reached.
I was overjoyed. And afraid. I had to face my colleagues.
When I spoke to anyone, I would wonder if the person believed I wasn’t a pervert. I wondered how my superiors would treat me. I love my job.
False accusations and gossip can destroy lives, especially when the accused is innocent.
I learnt that I needed to watch the catastrophic lifestyle that I had got used to.
I had to stop saying it was “horrible” and my life was “ruined”, because that only added to the stress.
I needed to put things in perspective. An innocent child in a burns unit of a hospital is horrible. Perhaps my situation wasn’t as tragic. Perhaps my life wasn’t ruined, but just damaged. I had to change my forlorn dialogues, and I felt better.
I understood that people might come forward to admit they were wrong. On the other hand they might not. It is up to me to put this behind me. I gave myself what I wish I could receive from others.
I needed to say to myself, “I know I didn’t do this. And I will give myself what I wish the community, the authorities, and so on would give me.”
I had to decide that I believe in who I am, what I stand for, and what I do. I just needed to go forth and live fully.