There is a new man

When I joined Sonke Gender Justice in 2013 as a consultant and then in 2014 as manager of the organisation’s sexual and reproductive health and rights portfolio I was in awe; here was a group of people who spent their days engaging with men and boys, working for gender justice. They were “woke”. They got it. The Sonke brand had great traction.

Early on I met Lethabo* and we got along immediately. He daily made his case to join my team. He wanted to leave his team urgently. He didn’t tell me why. I pleaded his case and he came on board.

Shortly after, I heard something disturbing – “jokes” in the corridors that you should not drink near a senior Sonke staff member, Mr X. You should also never accept invitations to his house, where he frequently invited colleagues. Mr X was then Sonke’s national project manager for a new campaign called Brothers for Life, led by the Centre for Communication Impact, then called Johns Hopkins Health and Education in SA.

“There is a new man in South Africa.”

That was the slogan of the campaign. Launched in 2009, the initiative promised to help men reinvent themselves and “promote positive male norms”. This change would take place where they lived, in community dialogues and at workshops so that other men – friends and neighbours – could be inspired.

For nearly a decade there was no sanction and Mr X continued to manage the programme tasked with changing the face of “masculinity” in South Africa. Then an intern complained to a line manager that they were being sexually harassed. Later, a second male manager made a similar complaint to his colleague, and a third and fourth male staff member followed suit. Some management team members agitated for drastic action, but were told processes had to be followed. Instead of action being taken, Sonke staff were warned to be cautious of what was said about our colleagues as it could be regarded as defamation of character.

By now all of this should sound eerily familiar.

It was staggering to witness. Ultimately, four people would come forward with similar accusations about Mr X before he was found guilty and dismissed. His dismissal came too late to spare Lethabo from instances in which he had to physically free himself from Mr X’s grip. Newfound migraines and stress blisters began to appear as the abuse’s toll manifested not only emotionally but physically. I then realised why Lethabo wanted to get out of his old team and away from Mr X, who held a more senior role than all of those whom he targeted.

More of these cases will undoubtedly surface as the sector finds its voice and whistle-blowers build up courage, but to think that this issue is one that solely Sonke is facing is a mistake. The culture of silence and victim-blaming has been fed and nurtured over years, and that lies squarely at the door of sector “leadership”.

I was reminded about this culture when, as then a Sonke staff member, long time activist Nokhwezi Mabutyana wrote an article to commemorate Global Female Condom Day.

“Instead of engaging me on the content of the campaign, which featured me in a photo holding the female condom, the men of Sonke were quick to comment on how my body looked and how ‘provocatively’ I came across in the photograph that accompanied the article.

“It was very troubling to be involved in work aimed at empowering women around their sexual health and then have that very work become the source of my own experienced sexual harassment at the hands of the organisation that produced it.”

Perhaps NGOs need to consider whether they have a duty to disclose that staff have been fired for sexual harassment to future employers in the sector, given the vulnerable groups with which they work.

Processes are the easy win. The harder work is to be done by understanding the type of men that we are at the office and the type of men that we are at home to our lovers, families, children and communities.

There is an urgent, desperate need for a functional and conscious Sonke. A Sonke that uncovers the potential we, as “men”, have to love. I am not sure what should happen next, but something has to.

How damaged are we as a sector when legal action, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration settlement agreements, and mentions of the “damage” that such cases will do to NGO brands are used to silence survivors and their allies who dare to speak out?

The silence reveals how deep the race, class and power rot has set in to civil society. Together we need to be urgently supporting the creation of safe spaces to rage, to hurt, to say it, to name it. To name “them”. We don’t have a choice, we don’t have the luxury of waiting, we don’t have the luxury to not name perpetrators. We ignore survivors at our peril.

- Johnson is the founder of the African Alliance for HIV Prevention and was employed by Sonke Gender Justice from 2013 to 2016. Mabutyana runs an NGO consultancy and worked with Sonke in 2014. She contributed to the article

TALK TO US

Is the gender justice sector pervaded by sexual predators? If so, how can survivors and whistle-blowers be protected?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword SONKE and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50.

By participating you consent to receiving occasional marketing material