South Africa is a country that prides itself on it diversity, with a multitude of different cultures, religions and languages across its 56 million citizens.
While the Constitution protects this diversity, it is often difficult for employers to align their business needs with the cultural, religious and traditional beliefs of their employees.
This is according to Aadil Patel, national practice head at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, who said that South Africa’s courts have increasingly begun to provide guidance as to how to deal with this potential conflict in the workplace.
He provided the example of the recent case of Kievets Kroon Country Estate (Pty) Ltd v Mmoledi where the the employee who sought to become a sangoma.
The employee in question sought one month of unpaid leave to attend a ritual ceremony for sangoma training, said Patel.
“She submitted a certificate from a traditional healer (and other supporting documents) to substantiate her request. The employee also informed the employer that this was a calling from her ancestors and that if she did not fulfil the request, she would die. The employer refused the request.”
Despite this, the employee went on the training without permission and she was subsequently charged with insubordination and absence from work and was dismissed.
The employee did not argue that she was sick in the conventional sense, but owing to her cultural beliefs, her ancestors had called her to undergo training to become a sangoma.
“This case shows how employer and employee interests often conflict. On the one side, you have an employer who is trying to run a business while on the other, you have an employee who believed that her ancestors were summoning her to become a sangoma,” said Patel.
“The Supreme Court of Appeal confirmed that South Africans have different belief systems which form part of their culture (that is, customs, ideas and social behaviour). A court, in general, is not equipped to evaluate the acceptability or consistency of a belief – it can only scrutinise the sincerity (or reasonableness) of an employee’s belief.
“In this case, the court found the employee’s belief to be reasonable,” he said.