On 2 September 2014, the Constitutional Court (CC) handed down judgment in an application for leave to appeal against a judgment of the Supreme Court of Appeal. The appeal involved the question as to whether the decision of the National Commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS) to not promote Barnard to the position of superintendent in the SAPS National Evaluation Service (NES), constitutes unfair discrimination on grounds of race in contravention of (i) section 9 of the Constitution and (ii) section 6 of the Employment Equity Act, 55 of 1998 (EEA).
Barnard joined the SAPS in 1989. During 2005, the National Commissioner (Commissioner) advertised a position within the NES. Barnard applied for this promoted position on two occasions. Despite being shortlisted, interviewed and recommended as the best suited candidate, she was unsuccessful on both occasions.
The Commissioner's reasons for not appointing Barnard were that it would ‘not enhance racial representivity at that particular salary level and that since the post was not critical to service delivery, it was not necessary to fill the vacancy immediately.’
The Labour Court, which found in favour of Barnard, held that the Commissioner’s decision was not a fair and appropriate method of implementing SAPS’s Employment Equity Plan. Further, it held that SAPS had not given Barnard sufficient reasons for the Commissioner’s decision. As such, SAPS had not discharged its onus to establish that the decision was rational and fair.
SAPS took the decision on appeal to the Labour Appeal Court (LAC), which then found in its favour.
The LAC held that the implementation of restitutionary measures is not subject to an individual’s right to equality in terms of section 9(3) of the Constitution. Accordingly, the decision not to promote Barnard was not unlawful because the Commissioner was not obliged to fill the advertised post.
On a further appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), the reversed the Labour Appeal Court’s decision and found that:
- Barnard was discriminated against on the listed ground of race; and
- SAPS failed to rebut the presumption of unfairness.
Against this, the SCA held that Barnard suffered unfair discrimination in terms of section 9(3) of the Constitution and section 6(1) of the Act.
SAPS applied to the Constitutional Court for leave to appeal the SCA decision.
The Court was unanimous that the appeal should be upheld.
The majority judgment, by Moseneke ACJ, held that the SAPS Employment Equity Plan is a restitutionary measure contemplated in section 9(2) of the Constitution and section 6(2) of the EEA. Therefore, the SCA misunderstood the issues before it and the law. The SCA was under an obligation to examine the equality claim in light of section 9(2) of the Constitution and section 6(2) of the EEA.
Sections 9(2) of the Constitution and 6(2) of the EEA confirms that it is not unfair discrimination to take affirmative action measures consistent with the purpose of the EEA. Barnard did not challenge the validity of the SAPS Employment Equity Plan.
The CC found that the appeal in that SCA was decided on the wrong principle.
Accordingly, the appeal was upheld. The order of the SCA was set aside and that of the LAC revived.
Employers should ensure that affirmative action in the workplace is implemented in accordance with a valid and carefully considered Employment Equity Plan. According to the principles confirmed by the CC, an employer is not obliged to fill vacancies where it would negatively impact on its Employment Equity Plan.