While Equal Education (EE) is keen to meet with Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schäfer over sexual misconduct allegations against its former staff members, it is concerned by her request that the organisation not engage with any pupils in the province in the interim.
The civil society organisation recently established an independent inquiry after allegations surfaced against former general secretary Tshepo Motsepe, former head of national organising Luyolo Mazwembe, and former treasurer Doron Isaacs.
Schäfer demanded that EE give an undertaking by 17:00 on Tuesday that it would cease operating in provincial schools until it had met and discussed a way forward.
“Should we not receive such undertaking, we shall instruct our schools not to allow anybody from Equal Education, and who is not a [pupil] at the school, onto school premises,” she said in a statement on Monday.
EE responded on Tuesday that it was committed to ensuring a safe environment in which its staff, members and volunteers could engage.
It welcomed an opportunity to speak with Schäfer and said it would propose an urgent meeting.
However, it felt her request was broad and unjustified.
Provincial EE head Noncedo Madudube said in a statement that a blanket restriction in the province would curtail the right of freedom of association for its members.
Some of its members were high school pupils and were free to interact as they pleased after hours or outside of school premises.
“We therefore understand her request to be for an undertaking that EE‘s staff members will not engage [pupils] in the Western Cape in person during school hours and on school premises. In this regard, EE‘s staff/volunteer engagement with [pupils] in the Western Cape does not primarily take place within school premises and during school hours.”
What is ‘broad and unjustified‘?
Schäfer clarified to News24 on Tuesday that she wanted to ensure that members of EE who were not pupils, did not participate in any activity on school premises until the education department could clarify the extent to which the men interacted with pupils at schools this year.
“I am not sure what is ‘broad and unjustified‘… If they do not go to schools then all they have to do is say so and give the undertaking.”
She also wanted to know what measures were in place to vet its members.
The department may require additional measures in order to allow them to continue operating in schools.
EE‘s campaign in the Western Cape focuses on school safety. School-based campaigns launched by pupils include safety, sanitation, teacher shortages and the eradication of container classrooms.
The organisation, founded in 2008, is organised in 56 schools across different areas of Cape Town.
Madudube said that the allegations did not involve any pupils and that none of the men had regular, direct interaction with individuals in provincial schools.
“Our policies prohibit relationships between staff or volunteers and [pupils] and clearly state that this offence is a first offence dismissal,” said Madudube.
“Any staff member who interacts with school [pupils] goes through a rigorous training process, which clarifies what appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is.”
Schäfer said a meeting with EE would also help her understand whether there were allegations against any other members.
“Three different individuals within a week being accused of sexual misconduct in one organisation places a duty on me to act with caution and make detailed enquiries about EE‘S activities in our schools, and take a public stand in this regard,” she told News24.
“If any other organisation were involved, EE would be demanding information as to how we are going to keep our [pupils] safe, and rightly so. They cannot expect a different standard to be applied to themselves. For them to regard our actions as ‘premature and unreasonable‘ is concerning.”
EE said it took sexual harassment very seriously.
“We are committed to confronting this difficult moment in our movement‘s history, with honesty and with integrity.
“We have acted swiftly to respond to all allegations and have committed publicly to continue doing so.”