HeForShe Interview with Adam Habib

Interview conducted by

 Professor Jackie Dugard, Gender Equity Office Director interviews Professor Adam Habib on the UN Women #HeforShe Campaign


1.       Is HeForShe a patronising campaign

No I do not believe it is but I do think that we have got to recognise that in South African society and in many other parts of the world gender based harm is particularly directed against women and it is particularly directed by men against women. That does not mean that there aren’t other types of harms perpetrated against vulnerable communities. It is particularly a very serious scourge in South Africa and it is something we are living with daily.

I think it is something we need to prioritise at this historical moment. The fact that we have a HeforShe campaign does not mean that we are not looking at other kinds of harm in the University community. We do and address these through multi-institutional mechanisms, but we are prioritising the violence against women in particular because it has reached epidemic proportions in South African society and it seems that it is absolutely essential that we act appropriately in this regard.


2.       Is the HeforShe campaign too-binary focused regarding gender, and how does Wits address specific harm alongside intersectional harm?

I think there is always a challenge around recognising the intersectionality of discriminations of harm and finding organisational forms that allows you to manage all of those harms. I do not think that you can answer that question by saying that all of it is going to be done through a single mechanism or through a single campaign.

We may very well want to ensure that in some campaigns we prioritise one set of issues and in another campaign we prioritise other sets of issues. This has been a long debate in the anti-apartheid moment, particularly, not only is it about transgender, but about race and gender-and the argument is, there may very well be campaigns that prioritise race, as much as there are other campaigns that prioritise gender.

There may be campaigns that simultaneously prioritise both and there may be others which prioritise transgender discrimination and harm. Wee cannot take a kind of all or nothing approach to this question. We have to start saying that we need some specific campaigns, some multiple campaigns, and that we need to have multiple organisational forms that manage all the kinds of discrimination that we have.

On transgender for instance, at this very institution, we have organisations-student clubs and societies which are focused on that question. We have transformed our entire disciplinary hearings to be able to act on these questions where harm is perpetrated. We have been mindful of some of the harm perpetrated in residence culture and we are beginning to address that in multiple ways.

As an institution and as a country, we are far more focused today in 2015 on transgender concerns than ever before in our history. None of that means that we have leaped this problem. None of that means that we have solved this problem, but it does mean that we are in a process of never ending transformation.

If you like mechanisms and programmes to address specific focused discriminations but also simultaneously multiple discriminations, and that is going to be an ongoing project throughout our lives and we need to build continuously and from previous successes continue to build them so that we deepen the transformation programme in our University.


3.       Does having a Gender Equity Office at Wits and a HeforShe focus detract from other anti-discrimination work such around Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity?

It will not and it has not, if you just simply look at the issues of transgender concerns in 2015 were much deeper than they were two, three years ago and that is exactly during the period we started establishing a HeforShe campaign at Wits University. The empirical evidence does not in any way indicate that we have weakened, in fact, if anything, our concerns have been strengthened. The more you focus on any forms of discrimination, the more the conversation deepens on ensuring that we deal with the intersectionality and address those as well.


4.       What does the HeForShe campaign mean to you personally?

I think it is something that I personally have had to deal with, right from day one of my taking office at Wits University. I walked into Wits University as Vice-Chancellor and within a couple of weeks there was an explosion of sexual harassment charges against particularly vulnerable black women at Wits University. One of the most difficult things in dealing with that, was that I had worked very closely with one of the Wits academics for many years. We had been research collaborators for over 20 years. In fact I was a student of this Wits academic and he was implicated in the sexual harassment charges in quite a serious way, and in the next few weeks and months we effectively had to take some very serious decisions in that regard.

I did think then and I still think now that we have to make those hard personal choices, because when we compromise on those personal choices, that we infuse in the society a culture where such violence is allowed to be continued and to be perpetrated.  For too long in the liberation movement of our society, we have seen this harm committed by comrades-people who have committed themselves to freedom, to inclusive development-and we cannot allow that to continue. We have to call out our own if we going to be serious about addressing our scourge in society.


5.       What is your view about the gender dynamics of the student leadership of the 2015 #FeesMustFall campaign?

Overall I think women did incredibly well. I think they lead that particular struggle. There were moments obviously where there were attempts, whether consciously or unconsciously, where men activists tried to come to the fore, but I think that throughout the campaign, women held their ground. They led and I think that nobody can truly say that women were overshadowed in any substantive way. I remember that fantastic march that took place at Luthuli House-and there is this wonderful photograph of two men and two women and the two women-Nompendulo and Shaeera are right at the centre of the struggle and leading that march. So yes, I think men had a presence but I do not think that women were in anyway overshadowed by their presence. I think they held their own and they led throughout that struggle.


6.       Should men be concerned about gender equity?

Absolutely. I think we have to be active participants in addressing gender equity. I think if we are not concerned about it and if we do not actively participate in addressing this challenge then we effectively replicate the very tragedies which we have inherited. If you want to address the historical disparities of the past, then it has to be an active process. If you simply let automatic market forces operate, you effectively replicate the very divides one inherits. So, addressing it has to be an active process, and it has to be an active process by men as much as it is by women and people who are transgender.


7.       What are the challenges, if any, to gender equity at Wits?

I think that there are multiple challenges. I think that firstly, there is a whole series of cultural predispositions, some of which we admit and some of which we do not admit that stand in the way for advancing gender equity-and that is something that we have to bring to the open and we need to have difficult conversations on.

To me, the first seems like to be a set of cultural practices. I see this in multiple areas, for instance if you go to audiology as a discipline, you will see mainly women who go into that discipline. Why is that so? It is a set of cultural practices. You see this in physiotherapy. If you walk into mining engineering, you will see largely men who specialise in that discipline. I think we are beginning to address it increasingly and now you are seeing more women emerge.But it is an active process and it has to be continuously challenged. We see it as we suggest in so many occasions where women are inadequately represented in senior positions in the University.

Again, part of the reasons is the cultural assumptions of people in power, but part of it is that the University is not geared to address the challenges of women in their everyday lives. Women have to deal with issues around childcare in our society and men do not sufficiently share that burden, and do we have appropriate structures that allow them to meet the multiple roles which they are fulfil in their societies and in their families. So we need to be responsive to those issues. There is always the case of money because we have existing contracts and people are in existing contracts and we have to obey the law and show that we respect their contracts. If we could enhance gender equity, we need to start investing in the development of women academics and in the development of women professionals.

We need to ensure that we create new positions and that we slowly begin to address the historical disparities of our past, but that requires investment, and in the context where investment is limited, it something we need to adequately address. We have to deal with gender harm violence against women in particular. At the University we need the appropriate instruments. We need counselling services, we need investigative services-and again these require huge investments. I think that there is multiple financial, cultural assumptions where the appropriate structures are in place. All of these have to be addressed through multiple means if we are going to begin to fix the problem and to address the historical disparities of our past.


8.       Regarding childcare, is the answer from the University perspective to put more effort into creating more support to women who have children and have to perform these multiple roles or to ensuring that it is not only women that carry the childcare burden?

I think we have to do both. We can say that only women shouldn’t be carrying that childcare burden, but that is a medium term process to acclimatise men within Wits and outside of Wits to start sharing the burden of childcare.

So we can’t say that until that happens, women must bear the burden and not be progressing within the institution. So we probably do need to provide support. We need a thoughtful conversations on the support however. For example, about five or seven years ago, we established childcare facilities at Wits and we found that none of the women at Wits actually used the childcare facilities. So the big question became, why were they not using the childcare facilities?

It seems to me that if we had consulted widely, we would have been able to determine whether it was cost; whether there were other people who like to structure relationships and travel around Johannesburg and in the city in ways which would be more prudent and convenient for them. For a host of reasons, they may have decided not to use those facilities.

We cannot say that we are not going to have the facilities, but it would be far more thoughtful to understand, why were those facilities not used, and then custom make support programs that speaks to women’s real needs-rather than the imagined needs by people in power.


9.       Is Higher Education grappling gender equity sufficiently?

I think we have made some significant progress. I do see this in multiple indicators. Fixty six percent of women are coming into University and that is a fundamental change to what existed 20 years ago. In Medicine, 68% of women actually occupy seats in the MBBCH program, partly because women do better in school and the do much better in academic performance. We are beginning to see fundamental shifts in quite real ways and those shifts are going to fundamentally change our society in 10/15 years as those women graduate,  as the occupy new professions and as they redefine the society in which we live. But, obviously that alone is not good enough. We still have incredible violence perpetrated against women in this society.

Does our curriculum grapple with this question? Does it grapple with trying to understand what is the reason for this? Do our research programmes do so? Do we make a whole series of hidden assumptions on why is this the case? Why is it that when you see in some research suggesting that we have a crises of masculinity in South Africa society and therefore this crises of masculinity surfaces in violence against women? One has to ask why is that crises manifested here and not in another context? Why is the manifestation of violence in one context and not another?

I think there is a large amount of reflection that needs to happen in our curriculum. I do think that we need to think about the induction programmes of young men and others in our institution-because many of these people spend five, six, seven years here.

If we cannot use those five, six and seven years to transform them as enabling citizens, then there is something wrong with what we are doing. I think that we have to do far more. We have to grapple with curriculum. We have to grapple with induction practices. We have to grapple with our own institutional cultural questions. But I do also think that sometimes we ignore that there has been progress, and we must recognise the progress but build on the progress as we go forward.


10.   What message do you have for survivors of gender-based violence?

There is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not seem that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but increasingly, this is a challenge that is being recognised.

It is increasingly a challenge that people in power are being forced to address. More onerous mechanisms are being established, to tackle perpetrators of crime and harm. Slowly but surely, we are beginning to address this challenge in our society.


11.   What would you say to survivors at Wits specifically?

I would say that firstly I am sorry as Vice-Chancellor that, this happened on my watch and my watch of my predecessors.-It should never have happened. Secondly, I want to say that we are putting mechanisms in place to address this.

We have done a whole series of initiatives over the past 12-24 months. We are going to deepen those initiatives, but we are only be able to address this problem if you are heard-if you are in a position to bring this to the fore, and we will do everything in our power to protect you and to make sure that you are safe when this happens.