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Sex pest victim tells of years of hell

Published Dec 3, 2006


Having enduring three-and-a-half years of hell after she laid a complaint of sexual harassment against diplomat "sex pest" Norman Mashabane, feisty Lara Swart says she now just wants to get on with her life.

"It's unbelievable, I'm so relieved the case has finally come to and end," Swart told Weekend Argus shortly after the Pretoria High Court on Friday ruled Mashabane should have been fired for sexual harassment.

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"It's been a nightmare. Now I just want to get on with my life and concentrate on my career in the department (of foreign affairs). This incident has been extremely painful... it's been hanging over me and my family for so long," she said, adding that she could not have got through the ordeal with the support of her husband and family.

"As a woman, there are certain things we can and must do when we are wronged, many times we ask ourselves whether it was all worth it," she said. "Today, I say yes because I am very pleased with the outcome," said the Pretoria-born diplomat. "I feel like a new person," she said.

The trauma of the sexual harassment and her subsequent complaint led to Swart accepting a posting to South Korea, while the Public Servants Association fought to take the matter - which was characterised by lengthy delays - to a conclusion.

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Swart said she was surprised that her long nightmarish legal battle to ensure Mashabane was punished, was eventually over in less than five minutes. Judge Jerry Shongwe, the deputy judge president of the High Court in Pretoria ruled in favour of an application by Swart to review the decision by Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in April 2004 to let Mashabane off the hook on sexual harassment charges after he had been found guilty of by a departmental disciplinary hearing.

Shongwe said Mashabane's appeal against his dismissal for sexual harassment of Swart has been set aside, adding that the minister's decision would be replaced with the following: "The appeal is dismissed. The finding of guilt on three charges of sexual harassment and the sanction of dismissal are confirmed."

Dlamini-Zuma was ordered to pay Swart's legal costs, estimated to be as high as R500 000.

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"I'm so glad it is finally over, it's been three long years of ups and downs, but we did not give up," said a relieved Swart shortly after the announcement at the verdict on Friday.

Swart told Weekend Argus that the court's ruling, coming in the middle of the government's 16 Days of Activism Against Women and Child Abuse, would serve as encouragement to many.

"It gives women hope that our system is working. Many victims of sexual harassment wonder whether it is worth pursuing charges against their perpetrators," she said.

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"But they may now say: 'See what Lara Swart has done', and follow my example. If we don't speak out, things will continue," she warned.

Mashabane, who forcibly kissed and groped Swart during a function at his residence in May 2003, was found guilty after a disciplinary hearing that recommended he be dismissed. This was the second sexual harassment case against the former diplomat.

In 2001, at least six Indonesian women laid several cases of sexual harassment against the diplomat. In the charge sheet before the disciplinary hearing, Mashabane was alleged to have had sex with a government employee in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven car; patted a domestic worker on the behind while she was doing the dishes; and showed embassy staff members pornographic pictures.

Gender activists monitoring the case said at the time that it was ironic that the disgraced ambassador was being protected by a woman.

Although Mashabane - whose wife Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was the former high commissioner to India and is MEC for local government and housing in Limpopo - was found guilty on 21 counts of sexual harassment, he remained in his post pending an appeal.

It was during the appeal that the incident involving Swart took place.

In November 2003, Mxolisi Nkosi, the presiding officer of the disciplinary inquiry, informed Mashabane of his dismissal after being found guilty of acts of sexual harassment against Swart.

In papers before the court, Mashabane boasted to staff within the embassy that nobody could take action him because he had been appointed by President Thabo Mbeki, and that he would never have sex with a white woman. "It's disgusting," he is alleged to have said.

In April 2004, the minister said she would uphold an appeal brought by Mashabane against his dismissal for misconduct.

Swart said she was glad the long-running saga had ended. "It shows if you believe in putting right an injustice, one could only do so through pursuing the matter by using the right channels, no matter how long it takes."

She said she was pleased with the support of her employers, the department of foreign affairs.

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