This summary of age discrimination law in South Africa has been prepared by ENSafrica: www.ensafrica.com.

Overview

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, (‘Constitution’) contains a general prohibition against discrimination and states that “everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.” It states that neither the state nor any person may unfairly discriminate against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

The Constitution also provides that national legislation must be enacted to prevent or prohibit unfair discrimination.  This constitutional obligation to give effect to the right to equality has been fulfilled through the enactment of the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998 (‘EEA’), the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1997 and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000. The first two statutes deal with discrimination in the employment sphere, while the third deals with discrimination in the wider society.

Who’s Covered?

All individuals in South Africa are protected against age discrimination.

What enforcement / remedies exist?

An aggrieved individual may take various routes to challenge an unfair discrimination on the basis of age, including:

  1. Filing a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission (‘SAHRC’);

  2. Referring a dispute to the Equality Court;

  3. Challenging the unfair discrimination through the various employment law dispute resolution bodies.

South African Human Rights Commission

The SAHRC is established by the South African Constitution and is empowered to investigate any alleged violation of human rights, regardless of whether a complaint has been made to the Commission, and to secure redress. The SAHRC may seek to resolve a dispute by way of mediation, negotiation, conciliation or it may convene a public hearing. It may also publish the findings of an investigation, which may be binding on the parties involved. It is also empowered to arrange for, or provide, financial assistance to enable proceedings to be instituted in a competent court for the necessary relief.

The Equality Court

An individual who alleges having been discriminated against on the basis of age is entitled to institute proceedings in the Equality Court. The Equality Court is established by the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act and is empowered to order various forms of relief including declaratory orders, interim orders, declaring a settlement agreement an order of court, ordering the payment of damages, restraining unfair discriminatory practices and ordering that an unconditional apology be made.

Because the EEA provides remedies where the discrimination occurs in the context of the employment relationship, employees are not entitled to refer unfair discrimination disputes to the Equality Court if the discrimination occurs in the employment context.

Employment Law

Under section 10 of the EEA, an employee who alleged unfair discrimination in any employment policy or practice, other than a dismissal on the basis of age, is entitled to refer a dispute to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (‘CCMA’). The CCMA must then attempt to resolve the dispute through conciliation. If conciliation, the dispute may be referred to arbitration conducted under the auspices of the CCMA. Alternatively, the dispute may be referred to the Labour Court for adjudication.

An employee who has been unfairly discriminated against can be awarded compensation or damages that are just and equitable in the circumstances. An order can also be made directing the employer to take steps to prevent unfair discrimination in future.

In the event that the alleged unfair discrimination takes the form of a dismissal, the former employee may refer an unfair dismissal dispute to the CCMA. If conciliation under the auspices of the CCMA fails, the employee may argue that the dismissal was automatically unfair and refer the matter to the Labour Court for adjudication. A finding of an unfair dismissal could attract the remedy of reinstatement or an order for the payment of compensation up to a maximum amount equivalent to 24 months’ remuneration, calculated at the employee’s rate of remuneration on the date of dismissal.

How common are claims?

According to the SAHRC for the 2015/2016 financial year, 3% of the complaints of unfair discrimination lodged with the SAHRC were on the basis of age. In comparison, 68% of the complaints were on the basis of race.

In the public service sector, 4% of the employment related disputes referred to the CCMA concerned allegations of unfair discrimination on the basis of age.

What claims are most common and what are the trickiest issues for employers?

Typically, claims relating to age discrimination arise in the context of retirement. In these cases, employees who have been asked by their employers to retire may allege that they have been unfairly dismissed due to  their age.

The Labour Relations Act creates an exception to the general rule that employees should not be discriminated against on the basis of their age, by providing that a dismissal based on age is fair if the employee has reached the normal or agreed retirement age for persons employed in that capacity. The main challenge that employers face in defending against these disputes is being unable to prove that there was either a normal (benchmark age for the relevant industry) or an agreed retirement age.

Retirement Age

There is no statutory or common law retirement age. Employers may only require their employees to retire if there is an agreed or normal retirement age for persons employed in that particular capacity.

The Social Assistance Act 13 of 2004 provides an “older person’s grant” to individuals who have attained the age of 60 years. However, applicants would only qualify for this grant if he/she:

  • is a South African citizen or permanent resident;

  • lives in South Africa;

  • does not receive any other social grant for themselves;

  • is not cared for in a state institution;

  • does not earn more than ZAR 78,120 per annum (if unmarried) or ZAR 156,240 (if married); and

  • does not have assets more than ZAR 1,150,400 (if unmarried) or ZAR 2,230,800 (if married).

The maximum amount that an individual may receive is ZAR 1,710 per month.

Interesting Cases

In the matter of Bank v Mark Finkelstein t/a Finkelstein & Associates the Labour Court was required to determine if the employee had been unfairly dismissal on the basis that she had been discriminated against, contrary to the provisions of the EEA.

Ms Bank was Mr Finkelstein’s secretary in his law firm. Upon commencement of her employment (at the age of 55) there were no discussions regarding retirement and the parties had not agreed on a retirement age. There was also no established normal retirement age within the firm. Mr Finkelstein testified that he had become dissatisfied with Ms Bank’s performance during the 2 years preceding her dismissal. He further testified that he did not follow incapacity proceedings because he attributed her poor performance to her age and wanted to spare her feelings. Ms Bank vehemently denied that there was a problem with her performance or that her age was impacting her ability to perform her duties.

When Ms Bank was 64 years of age, she received a letter from Mr Finkelstein, in which he recorded that her employment was being terminated as she was required to retire because she had passed the age of retirement as provided for in the firm’s policy.

The Labour Court found that it was clear that Ms Bank was dismissed due to her age. While Mr Finkelstein argued that the true reason for Ms Bank’s dismissal was her incapacity, the Labour Court found that the dominant reason for her dismissal was her age.

Accordingly, the Labour Court was required to determine whether there was an agreed or normal retirement age, which would render Ms Bank’s dismissal fair, to which there was not one. Mr Finkelstein accordingly sought to rely on the normal retirement age which applied in his previous law firm. Interestingly, the Labour Court found that when relying on an industry norm, it is critical that the employer presents credible evidence, preferably by an expert, as to what would constitute the industry standard or norm in order to establish the retirement age. Given that Mr Finkelstein had been unable to do so, he was unable to establish that there was a normal retirement age in the industry.

The Labour Court accordingly found that Ms Bank’s dismissal was unfair. However, the Labour Court found that it could not order compensation for both the unfair dismissal and the unfair discrimination as Mr Finkelstein would then be required to pay double compensation for the same act of discrimination. The Labour Court accordingly dealt with both the unfair dismissal and discrimination claims as one claim and ordered that Mr Finkelstein pay Ms Bank 18 months’ salary as compensation.