When free speech and panic collide
Is FNB’s decision to fire employees for expressing their private views the right remedy?
This incident takes us right down to the razor’s edge where you walk a sharp line between free speech, racism and SA’s tetchy political climate.
After reading all the reports, the events that unfolded are as follows:
• Four FNB employees were dismissed for "political talk and using insulting language".
• The four participated in a discussion on e-mail and Whatsapp in which they expressed surprise that DA leader Mmusi Maimane was married to a white woman.
• The words of Linda Mahaye, which appear to have initiated the string, were: "I’m shocked Mmusi Maimane’s wife is white."
• Siphesihle Jele responded: "White voice, white party, white wife, very soon he will be a Michael Jackson and bleach his skin."
• Simon Masimula responded: "If we don’t want white people to look down [on] us, we then should stop the notion that everything white is beautiful."
• FNB conducted a "thorough and vigorous" disciplinary and commission for conciliation, mediation & arbitration process in which the four faced charges that included "gross misconduct and breach of [their] duty of good faith towards the bank".
So what’s really going on here?
It would seem that, following scandals over statements by the likes of Penny Sparrow, the banks have decided to act with uncommon swiftness to quash chatter that might become a liability in the future.
This is good and well, except for the fact that these were not public utterances but private views, though they may have been expressed on e-mail accounts belonging to the bank and were probably done during work hours.
The question is: when is it justified for an employer to investigate and act against the privately expressed views of its staff members? And when such investigations are concluded, is dismissal the correct remedy?
Cosatu’s Sizwe Pamla put it this way: "These workers have a constitutionally protected right to hold and express their views.
"While all employers have a legitimate level of curiosity on what their employees do and say during working hours, we reject the idea that people should be punished for participating in national discourse, even if they are using a flippant and jeering tone."