Nedbank race row heads for court

Tumi Makgetla

03 February 2007 11:59

Two black auditors at Nedbank have vowed to pursue court action over a manager who allegedly said he could not employ blacks, because they “sit on their bum”, despite the company’s decision to clear him.

The auditors, Rhoda Yedwa and Michael Vilakazi, said that the Nedbank disciplinary finding was fatally flawed because they did not participate in the hearing.

Two weeks ago, a bank disciplinary committee announced it had cleared Eesa Kara of making racist statements at a company meeting in August 2005. The hearing, in December, took place after the matter had gone public.

Yedwa and Vilakazi approached the Labour Court last year after exhausting the bank’s internal grievance procedures. The complainants view the belated decision to hold a disciplinary hearing as “damage control”, arguing that Kara could sue the company for the delayed action when internal processes previously found in his favour.

Kara allegedly told an internal company meeting that he could not employ Africans because “blacks should wake up and not sit on their bum, and think that the world owed them something”, that “short-listed black applicants come to interviews unprepared” and that “their attitude sucks”.

He reportedly asked: “Where are my coloured people, because I want to employ them as well?”

Four of the five African staff members present wrote a letter of complaint to management.

In the court papers, the auditors attack Nedbank for failing to take the necessary steps to address the “discriminatory misconduct” in terms of its own disciplinary code.

They also accuse the bank of discriminating against them and other black employees in terms of the Employment Equity Act by affronting their dignity. Part of the relief sought includes damages in terms of the Act and the Constitution.

In an interview, Nedbank CEO Tom Boardman told the M&G his job “was to ensure that the process in this company has been followed absolutely”. Boardman said he had called for the hearing, “because if there was a racism issue, we would not tolerate it”.

The fact that Kara is “coloured” had complicated the issue. “It’s complex,” said Boardman. “Can a Jewish person make an anti-Semitic comment about another Jewish person?”

On January 18 last week the disciplinary hearing ruled that there was no prima facie case against Kara. Yedwa and Vilakazi did not want to participate verbally in the hearing as they feared that it might prejudice their court case. Instead, they offered written submissions, but said they had received no response.

Before his appointment as Nedbank’s Ombudsman, Dumisani Ncala was brought in to investigate the matter and make recommendations.

In his report, Ncala says: “[Kara] did become emotional in his response to his team, using words/ phrases that should have been avoided. This incident has fuelled more racial polarisation, and possibly divided people into camps.”

He suggested that Kara’s language be further investigated and that Kara apologise to the complainants. However, both their line manager and a Nedbank executive committee member, who handled the case on appeal, agreed that there were no grounds for a disciplinary hearing.

Boardman said both parties had delayed the matter; the complainants by referring it to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.

Nedbank human resources director Shirley Zinn said the bank had launched an “escalation process” to deal with race and gender issues. It was also holding transformation workshops to “build deeper empathy” in the company.