Ordinary words can be racist


I recently saw media reports on a case where a co-worker’s reference to a colleague as a “swart man” was found to be racist and derogatory.

Daily, I am aware of people referring to others as white females or black people, often in the context of work-related matters. Surely this cannot be racist and derogatory?


In the recent judgment by our Constitutional Court, the court was called on to decide whether one employee’s reference to another as a “swart man” was racist and derogatory.

In making its determination, the sentiments of the late Pres. Nelson Mandela were echoed.

He said that “the new moral and political challenge our young democracy should grapple with, is deracialising the South African society”.

The brief facts of this judgment involved a Mr Bester who disrupted a meeting and aggressively demanded that the chief safety officer remove the black man’s vehicle from his parking bay, or he would failing which he would take the matter up with management. He was subsequently suspended from work, charged for making racial remarks towards a fellow employee, and dismissed.

Bester challenged the fairness of his dismissal at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), which ruled in his favour. The matter went through the Labour Court all the way to the Constitutional Court.

The Constitutional Court held that the context in which the words were used were important in determining whether they were racist or derogatory.

Accordingly, the test to determine whether or not words were intended to be racist, is an objective test.

It requires a positive answer to the question of whether a reasonably informed person of ordinary intelligence would perceive the words as racist or belittling.

The Court said that the impact of the legacy left by apartheid and the racial segregation that has left our society with a racially charged present was the context in which Bester’s conduct had to be considered.

Based on this, the court found that Bester was fairly dismissed and that his conduct was racist and derogatory.

Not only is this judgment important in that it explains how even ordinary words can be discriminatory or racist based on context and intent, but it sets out the test to be applied.

From an employer’s perspective, it must also be understood that an employer must protect employees from any form of racial conduct or discrimination in the workplace. Employers should be sensitive to how ordinary words are used and should sensitise its employees.

If one considers the continuing efforts of the government to curb racial discrimination and intolerance through, for example, the recent gazetting of the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill which aims to provide enforcement measures for the prosecution of hate crimes and hate speech, it is even pertinent that employers should sensitise staff and create an environment within which discriminatory, abusive and hateful conduct is not tolerated.

Should such conduct arise, the necessary policies and procedures should be in place to deal with it.

– Jeanette Monahadi, director, Phatshoane Henney Attorneys