The academic political left was rocked this week with allegations that an attempted sexual assault was covered up by a respected activist and politics lecturer.
UCT history lecturer Camalita Naicker claims she was the victim of an attempted sexual assault and that her superior at the time Vashna Jagarnath tried to excuse the assault, saying “it was typical of men in situations like these”. In a blistering Facebook post this week Naicker also accused Jagarnath of being a rape apologist.
Jagarnath is an academic associated with Numsa’s Movement for Socialism Task Team and the Numsa Research and Policy Institute. Naicker is in the final year of her PhD and was supervised by Jagarnath’s husband, who has since reportedly asked her to find a new supervisor.
The incident occurred while both Naicker and Jagarnath were contracted by software company ThoughtWorks to do media work for Numsa.
Last week, an open letter (requires a subscription) believed to have been penned by Numsa’s chief operations officer, claimed that the union had been “captured” by ThoughtWorks and other capitalist interests. The open letter also mentioned an incident of “sexual harassment” involving ThoughtWorks employees.
In her Facebook post, Naicker said she was the subject of this assault. Naicker says a colleague made sexual advances toward her while they were living in shared accommodation provided by ThoughtWorks and that she reported this to Jagarnath.
“[Jagarnath] was supportive and apologised about what happened she also said it was typical of men in situations like these and she was sorry it had happened to me,” she wrote in the post. However, she said, Jagarnath later told her the assailant “is very politically important for this project” and that they couldn’t just fire him.
Naicker said Jagarnath subsequently sidelined her at work and that “she also began having private meetings with me, intimidating me and telling me that she thought it was best that I leave.”
She emailed ThoughtWorks’ CEO Roy Singham, who forwarded her complaint to the directors of the company’s South African branch, who advised her to take it up through ThoughtWorks’ internal disciplinary processes. Her assailant was found guilty of attempted sexual assault by the commissioner and subsequently fired.
The report on the outcome of the disciplinary inquiry, which the Daily Vox has seen, says that Jagarnath and the accused’s version of events were “similarly cryptic”, that the accused’s was “vague and changing” and that Jagarnath’s was “vague and imprecise”. The chairperson hearing the inquiry added: “Her [Jagarnath’s] distaste for Camalita was palpable and I cannot accord her version [of events] any significant weight.”
Naicker said she received an end-of-contract letter from the company a few days later. She took ThoughtWorks to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) over her dismissal. According to Naicker, while ThoughtWorks denied any connection between the attempted sexual assault hearing and their decision not to renew her contract, they did pay her four months’ salary.
Speaking out against gender violence
Naicker told The Daily Vox she’d chosen to go public with the issue now because people had been asking questions about the assault mentioned in the open letter to Numsa. She also said she wanted people to be held accountable for not taking sexual assault in political organisations seriously. “It happens all the time especially in left movements and organisations.”
Naicker said that there had been “a silencing of the issue and several attempts to downplay and ridicule it” and that there had been “no accountability even after I showed on numerous occasions willingness to speak about the issue and talk about the way in which gender is silenced within left movements and organisations”.
She said she has gotten overwhelming support after speaking about the issue and that many people have told her that they, or people they know, have had similar experiences.
On Friday, Jagarnath published a statement on Facebook to “set facts straight”.
She said she had offered “support and assistance” after Naicker raised the issue in October, that the matter was handled informally and confidentially at Naicker’s request, and that it had resulted in a “mutually agreed-on way forward, including a gender seminar”. (Naicker denies that she had asked for the matter to be resolved confidentially.)
Jagarnath said Naicker continued to play an active role in the organisation until her six-month contract ended. It was after this that a formal complaint was lodged, investigated and adjudicated. Jagarnath received a verbal warning that in future, allegations like this should be referred to HR immediately.
“In political and ethical terms, and throughout the period of the inquiry, I believe I acted with integrity, kept Camalita’s confidence as she requested, and tried to resolve the matter as per her desires,” she said.
Numsa has denied any involvement in the matter and said it could not comment on the internal disciplinary process of another organisation. Earlier this week, it also denounced the open letter.
Nyari Samushonga, managing director of ThoughtWorks Pan Africa, told The Daily Vox that it “took the matter very seriously”. She said that after a formal investigation and disciplinary proceedings, the accused was “terminated” and is no longer an employee. “ThoughtWorks is dedicated to providing a harassment-free environment for everyone,” she said.
Reporting by Nolwandle Zondi and Rumana Akoob.
*Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with details concerning Naicker’s PhD supervision and the findings of the disciplinary hearing.