When we think of activism, images of mass protests, placards, sit-ins, and sometimes-violent attacks on symbols of power come to mind. These are the traditional ways of focusing the public’s attention on issues of social justice. Every once in a while, however, one reads about the determined voice of one woman and her fight for justice and fairness. City Press reported on the story of just such a woman (“Victory at Last in Sex Pest Battle,” 28 June 2016).
When Professor Thidziambi Phendla faced sexual harassment from the highest office of Executive Management at the University of Venda, she reported the matter to the office that deals with these matters. Instead of investigating her complaints, the perpetrator of the abuse silenced her by accusing her of using her position fraudulently to benefit from a university tender process, and then dismissed her as Dean of the School of Education. This action served to shift the spotlight away from Professor Phendla’s abuser, and to protect him from facing the consequences of his actions. By stripping her of her position as dean and terminating her contract without affording her the right of reply to this allegation of fraud, the university violated a significant rule of administrative fairness. At great cost to her personal life, Professor Phendla began the painful and lonely journey of fighting for justice. After five years of fighting and waiting, with tremendous financial strain, and its impact weighing heavily on her health and family, justice has been delivered. The charges of financial misconduct against her have now been dismissed by the High Court in Gauteng, and the University of Venda ordered to take disciplinary action against its Vice Chancellor.
Many stories of how universities and other institutions of higher learning fail to protect their members of staff from unfair treatment by those in positions of power remain untold. In the past couple of years, several newspapers have carried debates on racism at South African universities. These debates are critical if we are to confront the important issue of social change beyond the university environment. Yet it is also true that a focus on the single issue of race as a framework for addressing cases of discrimination against women obscures the problem of abuse of all kinds, including patriarchy, and abuse of power by other women. The framework of racism has dominated perspectives on discrimination in the courts of social media and public perception, leading to a skewed view regarding the vulnerability of women, and especially black female academics, the majority of whom are often at the bottom of university hierarchy. Our own views especially—(“our” as black men and women)—regarding issues of gender and race have an impact on how we respond to attitudes about sexual harassment in the workplace. Comments on this issue by Carol Swain in her book, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality come to mind. Reflecting on the tide of critical voices that rose against American law professor Anita Hill when she went public about her experiences of sexual harassment by then nominee to the US Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, Swain writes:
For African Americans generally, the issue was not so much whether Hill was credible or not; she was dismissed because many saw her as a person who had violated the code … which mandates that blacks should not criticize, let alone accuse, each other in front of whites.
The issue may not be as dramatic in the South African context as described by Swain in relation to African-American’s responses to the issue of sexual harassment by black male sexual predators. One could say, with very few exceptions, that generally the South African public has demonstrated significant support for survivors of sexual harassment who have spoken publicly about their experiences. Even during President Zuma’s rape trial, there was visible presence of public campaigns in support of the woman who accused him of rape, despite the public mockery, ridicule and humiliation of her by ANC-supporters. But Professor Phendla’s story casts a new spotlight on this debate, and reminds us of the complicity of management, councils and other committees presiding on these matters at universities.
Institutional goals of change and transformation are often overshadowed by a number of other factors embedded in the institutional culture of universities. Even when rules and policies are applied appropriately, including the presence of “transformation representatives” in various committees, seemingly “normal” university procedures often work to the detriment of academic and administrative staff who may have little control over decisions taken by those with an unfair advantage in the way that these procedures are implemented, often leading to unchecked procedural injustice.
Professor Phendla’s story focuses our attention on the interaction of race and gender in her experience of discrimination. It clearly demonstrates the grave injustice done to her, leaving her with no recourse except to approach the courts. In the aftermath of her fight for justice, will the university acknowledge that at the centre of her dismissal, and a five-year traumatic struggle, was black male privilege and the complicity of others in positions of authority?
Phendla’s story is also important as a reminder of the various ways in which university cultures often discriminate against women who have no power or influence in the university hierarchy. The universities’ National Development Plan has set as its target to increase the output of black women post-graduate students, and female academic staff and researchers by 2030. This vision should go beyond a simple numbers approach. A multidimensional framework that considers the overlapping systems of disadvantage and the unintended consequences that might constrain women’s advancement would ensure that these goals are pursued effectively and achieved with meaningful results.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is professor and Chair of Research in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She also holds a research fellowship at University of the Free State, and appointment as the SARChI Chair for Historical Trauma and Memory.