Addressing sexual harassment in South African workplaces

July 31, 2023

Dr Linda Meyer: Managing Director, IIE Rosebank College

 Sexual harassment in the workplace is a global phenomenon with severe repercussions for individuals and organisations alike. However, in the specific context of South Africa, where social inequalities and power imbalances persist, the issue takes on additional complexities.

Sexual harassment continues to plague workplaces across South Africa, compromising employees’ safety, well-being, and dignity. Considering this pervasive issue, more urgent action is required to ensure a culture of respect and equality within organisations. South Africa stands at a critical juncture where collective efforts must be made to eradicate sexual harassment and ensure workplaces are free from discrimination and harassment.

Recent studies and CCMA trends show a significant increase in sexual harassment cases in the private and public sectors. The data highlight the alarming prevalence of sexual harassment in South African workplaces. It is crucial to acknowledge that sexual harassment knows no boundaries and affects individuals regardless of their gender, age, or position within an organisation. Furthermore, it perpetuates power imbalances, reinforcing inequalities and hindering career growth and personal development.

Defining Sexual Harassment

According to the Employment Equity Act, sexual harassment is defined as any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that violates the dignity of a person and creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, or offensive environment. It can include unwelcome physical, verbal, or non-verbal behaviour, such as sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, sexually explicit comments or jokes, displaying or sharing sexually explicit material, or any other unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that makes an individual feel uncomfortable or violated.

The EEA further emphasises that sexual harassment can occur between individuals of the same or different gender, involving an employer, supervisor, co-worker, client, or any person within the workplace. The law recognises that both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment and provides equal protection and recourse for all.

Legislative Framework and Policy Responses

In response to this urgent matter, the South African government has implemented legislative frameworks to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. The Employment Equity Act, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, the Labour Relations Act and the Code of Good Practice on the Handling of Sexual Harassment Cases and the  Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work (ILO). The legislation and case law provides crucial guidance for organisations to develop comprehensive policies and procedures. However, ensuring these measures are effectively implemented, monitored, and enforced is vital.

Preventive Measures and Interventions

Prevention and intervention strategies play a pivotal role in combating sexual harassment. Organisations should implement comprehensive training programmes, raise awareness through educational campaigns, and establish precise reporting mechanisms. By empowering employees to recognise and report sexual harassment, organisations can swiftly address and redress such misconduct. Creating an environment where victims feel supported and empowered to come forward without fear of retaliation is crucial.

Socio-Cultural Factors Contributing to Sexual Harassment

The socio-cultural factors contributing to the persistence of sexual harassment must be critically examined. South Africa’s history of social inequalities and patriarchal norms provides fertile ground for mistreatment to thrive. It is imperative to address these deep-rooted issues and foster a society that values respect, gender equality, and diversity.

Sexual harassment cannot be understood in isolation from the broader socio-cultural context. True transformation can only be achieved through a cultural shift that challenges gender norms and fosters equality. Employers must actively promote diversity and inclusion, encouraging dialogue and open discussions on gender-related issues. Engaging men as allies and advocates is essential in dismantling patriarchal structures and fostering a sense of collective responsibility. By leveraging the power of social media and grassroots movements, the call to end sexual harassment can reach a broader audience, fostering a societal change that transcends individual workplaces.

South Africa stands at a pivotal moment in its ongoing fight against sexual harassment in the workplace. By prioritising eradication of this pervasive issue, organisations and individuals can contribute to a society that values respect, equality, and dignity.

Practical steps for victims of workplace sexual harassment

It is crucial for victims to prioritise their safety and well-being at all times. If you feel threatened or in immediate danger, contact the authorities or law enforcement.

If you are a victim of workplace sexual harassment, it is essential to remember that you have rights and that there are steps you can take to address the situation:

  1. Document incidents: Keep a detailed record of the incidents of sexual harassment, including dates, times, locations, and descriptions of what happened. Note any witnesses present during the incidents.
  2. Familiarise yourself with company policies: Review your organisation’s policies and procedures on sexual harassment. Understand the reporting process, complaint mechanisms, and available support systems.
  3. Seek support: Reach out to a trusted colleague, friend, or family member for emotional support. Sharing your experience can help alleviate stress and provide guidance on the next steps.
  4. Report the harassment: Follow your organisation’s reporting procedure to report the incidents of sexual harassment formally. Submit a written complaint to your human resources department or designated authority, providing as much detail as possible.
  5. Consult a legal professional: Consider seeking legal advice from an employment lawyer specialising in sexual harassment cases. They can help you understand your rights, guide the legal process, and advocate on your behalf.
  6. Preserve evidence: If you have any physical evidence (such as emails, text messages, or photographs) or witnesses who can support your claims, ensure that you preserve and document such evidence.
  7. Maintain confidentiality: It is crucial to respect the confidentiality of the investigation. Be cautious about discussing the matter with individuals not directly involved or authorised to handle the complaint.
  8. Cooperate with the investigation: If an internal investigation is initiated, fully cooperate with the investigators. Provide all relevant information, attend meetings, and respond to inquiries truthfully.
  9. Seek counselling or therapy: Consider seeking professional counselling or treatment to help cope with the emotional and psychological impact of the harassment. Mental health support can be crucial during this challenging time.
  10. Follow up on actions taken: Stay informed about the progress of the investigation and any actions taken by your organisation. If you feel the response is inadequate, consult your legal advisor to explore further options, such as complaining to the relevant labour or equality authorities.


The consequences of sexual harassment are far-reaching and detrimental. Victims often suffer psychological distress, physical health issues, and diminished work performance. Moreover, organisations that fail to address sexual harassment risk reputational damage, decreased productivity, and legal liabilities. Both employers and em ployees must recognise the collective responsibility to foster a safe and inclusive work environment.

In South Africa, victims of workplace sexual harassment can report incidents to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and the South African Police Service (SAPS). It is advisable to consult with a legal professional to assess your specific situation and determine the most appropriate course of action.

Remember, each situation is unique, and it is essential to prioritise your safety and well-being. If you feel threatened or in immediate danger, remove yourself from the environment and seek assistance from the appropriate authorities or law enforcement.