Response to VARSITY article on sexual assault and harassment

Written by Ms Kylie Hatton, Deputy Director: Communications & Marketing Department, UCT in Letters

The University of Cape Town needs to raise some important points about how allegations of sexual harassment and assault were unfairly reported by VARSITY, especially in respect of the article’s inaccurate and potentially damaging portrayal of the role of the Discrimination and Harassment Office (DISCHO). As part of the current discussions in the campus community, UCT is considering how it should respond to the many issues that have been raised and will be calling on students and staff to give their input on all aspects of transformation, including the role and function of departments such as DISCHO. 

Unfortunately, the allegations against DISCHO made by Dela Gwala were not presented to DISCHO. Ms Gwala’s accounts of how DISCHO handled two cases are secondhand; there is no evidence that these cases were verified with the people concerned, nor did the writer discuss them with DISCHO. So DISCHO had no opportunity to respond to Ms Gwala’s allegations. As a result, the article’s description of DISCHO’s role in these cases is far from objective. This is not only damaging to DISCHO itself, but to the useful and necessary work it does in helping students and staff members to resolve matters of harassment and assault, as many have done at DISCHO with great success. 

DISCHO has no power to prosecute an alleged perpetrator or institute disciplinary action; those are functions of UCT’s Courts Office, or, if the complainant decides to pursue legal action, of the South African Police Service and the state prosecutor. DISCHO’s purpose, is to support complainants who need medical or legal assistance, for instance in formulating a complaint about harassment or assault; investigate procedures on alleged transgressions; provide legal advice and assist in preparation for legal trial or university disciplinary hearing; and provide mediation if that is the option a complainant selects. Other DISCHO services are described on http://www.uct.ac.za/services/discho/.

The successful prosecution of a disciplinary hearing or legal case against a perpetrator requires the complainant to identify himself or herself; unfortunately anonymous complaints cannot be brought to trial. It may be for this reason that a complainant will choose instead to request that DISCHO mediate a discussion between the complainant and perpetrator. The purpose of such action is to bring the perpetrator to a sense of the great wrong that has been done to the complainant, to allow the perpetrator the opportunity to apologise and to provide the complainant with an opportunity for closure of the ordeal. It is important to note that mediation is just one of a range of actions DISCHO explains to each complainant. As DISCHO explains on its website: “Either party may pause or end proceedings at any stage and revert to the formal procedure.”

It is correct, as Ms Gwala said, that participants in a mediation process are counselled about the need for confidentiality and they are asked to commit to this by signing a confidentiality agreement. If Ms Gwala’s friend was not happy with the outcome of the mediation process, she had the right to seek further counselling from DISCHO without breaking the confidentiality agreement.

DISCHO plays an important part in enacting UCT’s policies on racism and racial harassment (approved by Council in December 2009) and sexual harassment and sexual offences (approved in March 2008). The suite of new social justice policies approved by Council in December 2009 also includes the appointment of the University Ombud, as well as the new Mediation policy.  These policies are all available on http://www.uct.ac.za/services/discho/.

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