DISCHO's Response to 'Speak Up, Speak Out'

Written by Francois Botha in Letters

In response to the article in the Varsity (28 April 2015) concerning the allegations of poor service by DISCHO relating to claims of sexual harassment, some comments are necessary.

 My first responsibility is to refrain from any utterance that could add to the present violation of confidentiality. There are other parties involved, and the blanket of confidentiality is meant to protect all parties in a case or dispute, not only a specific complainant in a case. This is the cornerstone upon which the office operates. And of course, a concern for complainants in other and future cases, who value and expect an unconditional commitment to confidentiality.

 It needs to be said that I was not invited, at first, to comment on specific cases or incidents. My general comments, mostly on pre-set questions pertaining to procedure, were juxtaposed against specific cases, and my observations created the impression of a disinterest and disconnect. But these cases are real and familiar, because considerable effort has been invested here.  These efforts are not always given the same amplification as the articulated dissatisfaction when expectations are not met. And unfortunately a balanced view can only be possible when both sides of the story can be fairly presented. This cannot happen in public, especially not in a newspaper, not if the principle of confidentiality is going to mean anything. There is another more effective way of checks and balances for perceived failure to deliver on basic expectations and rights (DISCHO, or in any matter).  The right to report to The Office of the Ombud has been in place for almost 5 years, and is (and should be) the most obvious recourse. The Ombud has the independence and authority to investigate such dissatisfaction with more vigour and tenacity than any other process, and has the power to report to the highest decision-making body namely UCT’s Council. So far be it from me to aver that the version(s) presented here and on related blogs are one-sided, selective and riddled with inaccuracies. An investigation and high-level recommendation of the Ombud will go further and comes with a guaranteed commitment to confidentiality. As it should be.

 On the opening statement of the previous article stating that ‘…there are not adequate systems in place to deal with sexual harassment and abuse at the University:’ I agree. Much more should, and can be done. My office can be a lot more effective, and I take such criticism willingly, and on the chin. It is part of the crucial development phase that forces an institution to respond to the needs of those most adversely affected by a culture of ignorance.

 On the brighter side (and I have to say this): we are not all bad either. Pioneering work has been done to establish DISCHO as a dedicated, fulltime response office. It offers after-hours service, staffed by trained Advisors, Student Support Officers, Mediators and developed protocols on most issues pertaining to relevant policies.  We have a range of services to be considered in cases of gender violence (including a response and assistance to many off-campus incidences of domestic violence). It needs to be borne in mind that the ultimate autonomy and final choice of how a matter should proceed, rests with the complainant. The informal route is often favoured by complainants, and for obvious reasons. The choice of the informal route, however, does not exclude the complainant from opting for the formal procedures at a later stage (particularly if not satisfied with the outcome). But outcomes are not always desirable or acceptable, and the more informal the chosen route, the less control over the outcome. It does, however, provide a possibility for closure, and agency for someone who chooses to follow this route.

 The policies on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Offences have been developed over the last 8 years, and admittedly, should be the subject of review more regularly. But in my view, the on-going development of the policies is not the focus of our present dilemma. They have worked well in serving hundreds of complainants who have sought advice, support and assistance from the office, in many unrecorded stories that have not made it to the press. Of greater concern should be the focus on combined efforts of an entire University to take responsibility for the continued implementation of the policies. When last did your line-manager/lecturer remind you (or new students/staff members) of the existence of any of these policies? Or displayed any knowledge of any of these policies? Or provided any opportunity to discuss the implications of it, as they are required to do, in efforts to keep the ‘environment free from sexual harassment’ (Sections 2.1, Sexual Harassment Policy)? This cannot (only) be done by an office with two full time members alone, especially where the challenge of a lack of any administrative support has been experienced as crippling and demoralizing.

 And finally, hats off to Dela Gwala for making a noise. I may not agree with her style of reporting on cases where she might be unaware of the full version. Yet I applaud her presence as an important feminist voice, one that needs to be respected and commended. If anything, we need an army of Dela Gwala’s to turn the tide on patriarchy, on rape culture, on femicide, on Universities worldwide struggling with the same issues that we seem so incapable of coming to terms with.

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