Equality Court dispenses unique justice

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

If the dictum "All shall be equal before the law" holds true anywhere, it is at the Equality Court where a homeless man stands as much chance to be heard as his rich counterpart.

Tim Mthuthuzeli Sigwisa from the Eastern Cape is a hobo in Johannesburg and a serial litigant at the court. It was the same court that heard the case of businessman Tokyo Sexwale who had allegedly implied witchcraft on the part of old people.

The court cleared the mining mogul of hate speech.

Hate speech, according to the court, are words which can be hurtful, incite harm or propagate hatred.

The man who had complained to the Equality Court about the Mvelaphanda boss is Mbuyiselo Botha, a gender activist who has recently brought another case before the court. Botha's latest gripe is that he takes umbrage at ANCYL president Julius Malema's statement that "women who enjoyed it (sex) wake up in the morning, eat breakfast and ask for taxi money".

The raison d'etre of the Equality Court is to carry out the spirit of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000.

Clerk of the Court Richard Maluleke says the rules of procedure are slightly different in their court since "the general approach in courts in South Africa is the 'accusatorial approach', where each party brings their own evidence and presents their case to an impartial presiding officer".

The Equality Court is indeed a strange animal since the assessors who serve in it "need not have any legal qualification". The only requirement is that they be "suitable", "available" and "willing to sit".

In keeping with the spirit of the Act, the court tries to ensure that all parties before it are equal, whether rich or poor, educated or not, says Maluleke.

Complaints are initially laid with the Equality Court but the presiding officer of the court has the discretion whether to hear the case in the court or to refer it to another body that might be better placed or equipped to deal with it, Maluleke explains.

The court is not a toothless watchdog, he says. It has the power to make the settlement between the parties to the proceedings an order of court.

Browsing through its case load makes for fascinating reading.

Dickey Pillay was hauled before the court by his employers for calling them koelies while Michael Ramokomele charged his boss, Arie Bailey, with racial discrimination for calling him a domkaffir.

The case involving Gold Reef City restaurant Back O the Moon was settled out of court on December 5 2006. Dikobo Hirohito had claimed that he was denied access to the eatery on the basis that with sneakers, he was not appropriately dressed. Hirohito lingered long enough to see a white customer, then an Indian, allowed in "while also wearing takkies".

He charged that this was racist and a senior manager at the restaurant, co-owned by former television personality Felicia Mabuza-Suttle, had argued that they had a certain dress code and in their many years of business had never discriminated against patrons.

Juanne Pierre de Abreau and his gay lover were kicked off the premises of Tsogo Sun when, according to manager Wendy Jane Morgan, other patrons started complaining of the lovebirds kissing and fondling. De Abreau alleged Tsogo Sun was motivated by homophobia.

An inmate at Johannesburg Prison (Sun City) Jan Hendrick Engelbrecht, had complained of bad racial treatment when other prisoners started using his personal things without asking him. They did this because he was white!

Zwelethu Matsha, 37, and another man named Strabane Centra in the court papers fought it out at the court.

The two were inmates at a shelter for homeless people when one said the other "like his fathers (Thabo) Mbeki and (Nelson) Mandela were Xhosas who did not belong to Johannesburg". The matter was resolved on June 12 2007.

Anybody can bring matters of unfair discrimination, hate speech and harassment to the Equality Court, "While no court fees are payable, each party bears their own costs unless the presiding officer decides otherwise."

With no magistrate presiding, the atmosphere is relaxed and less intimidating as in conventional courts.

Talk of equal before the law!