Depending on the context in which it is said, the remark "………’n Boer maak 'n plan, but an Indian is born with a plan", might evoke a chuckle, annoyance or even anger, but seldom indifference. In some cases it could cost someone his or her job.
In a recent arbitration case of Mahas v Smiths Manufacturing, the presiding commissioner had to deal with the fate of a manager who had been dismissed for allegedly making racially inflammatory remarks. The background of this case is as follows. During a meeting with employees Mr Mahas, a dispatch manager, was addressing a number of workers. After addressing a particular problem he made the comment "………’n Boer maak 'n plan, but an Indian is born with a plan". Although Mahas had made no reference to Black workers, it became apparent that his utterances were not well received when a Black worker questioned why he (Mahas) had referred to himself as an Indian instead, apparently, as a South African. According to Mahas he meant no offence.
Unfortunately matters became even worse when Mahas tried to explain himself. He mentioned that race classification is still prevalent in official forms and referred to the requirements of the Employment Equity Act. According to the evidence of some witnesses, he allegedly went further by stating that even the employer’s clocking system is racially "batched" as the number with which the clock numbers start, differs, namely a White person with no. 8, an Indian no. 7, Coloured no. 6 and Black no. 2. The workers understood this as an indication by Mahas that according to national statistics the intelligence of Blacks was inferior to that of the other racial groups. The employer then charged Mahas with racial discrimination in that he had made remarks of an inflammatory nature. He was dismissed.
The Arbitrator found that there was no evidence to show that Mahas had at any stage suggested that the Company rated Black workers to be intellectually inferior. There appeared to be confusion between his initial utterances about the ingenuity of Indians and the number batching of clock cards. The Arbitrator remarked that the matter should have been properly investigated before demanding from Mahas to answer to allegations of racism. He also found that the disciplinary procedure had been unfair. Mahas was reinstated with retrospective effect.
The case illustrates how extremely sensitive racial issues in the workplace can be and how easily misunderstandings could arise. The case also illustrates the importance of a proper investigation before disciplinary charges of any kind are brought against an employee.
Written by Jan Truter of www.labourwise.co.za
Labourwise is an on-line labour relations service aimed at assisting SMMEs with the implementation of effective labour relations. They can be contacted via www.labourwise.co.za or email@example.com