Workers angered by ruling in favour of a sexual harassment accused

J.A. Floral Distributors of Fairview, Gqeberha, where four employees were made to strip to their underwear by a manager to see who had left stains of menstrual blood on the toilet seat. Archive Photo by Joseph Chirume

The magistrate made her ruling without allowing for cross examination of the accused..

A magistrate in Gqeberha is in the eye of a storm after she exonerated a manager at JA Floral Distributors in a case involving four black women.

Magistrate Petzer last week found Natasha da Mata-Correia (née de Freitas), a senior manager at the company, not guilty of a sexual harassment offence. She was accused of ordering four black female workers in September last year to strip to their underwear in the company toilet to identify who had left menstrual blood in the bathroom.

Nomvuzo Sompontsha, Nomathamsanqa Plaatjie, Nandiswa Vinqi and Nicolene Solomon approached the courts seeking a criminal conviction for what Natasha had done to them.

It is said earlier on the day of the ordeal, Natasha’s brother, Dominique de Freitas, had angrily referred to the person who had left blood stains on the toilet seat as a pig and promised to deal with them. Natasha then called the four women to the toilet and ordered them to lower their pants to see for herself.

The incident triggered a backlash against JA Floral prompting labour activists and the Economic Freedom Fighters to protest outside the company. The workers said they were deeply traumatised resulting in them seeking the services of psychologists.

The National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers’ (Nupsaw) regional secretary, Lerato Thethe, said that they believe that the magistrate was biased against them. “The magistrate was biased and if it was done by a fair one the guilty verdict could have been passed… She even denied the NPA the right to cross examine the accused. I hope we will win at the CCMA,” he said.

In a judgement that shook the labour activists, magistrate Petzer found that the manager did not err by calling the four workers to the toilet saying they did not strip in a public toilet. She said they had the right to refuse to strip. The magistrate concurred with the defence that the complainants were not forced but were rather asked and had the right to say no.

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The verdict prompted the four women to write a letter on 11 June to the National Prosecuting Authority ordering it to appeal against the judgement.

The letter read, “This court outcome left us so traumatized, embarrassed and confused especially looking at the age of the accused and also the humiliation we felt. No apology was offered to us by the accused when we told her that we did not like what she did to us, she said we should forget anything happened.

“The magistrate was very biased and she could not even hide it. She said we were taken to a private toilet, not a public one, that we were not forced but could have said no and that we approached the EFF making it a political issue and that we were greedy as we wanted R1000,000 [sic] in a civil case.

“The magistrate said we failed to prove our case beyond reasonable doubt therefore there was no need for the accused to take a stand. The magistrate was very dismissive and showed partiality towards the defence. She further made us feel like our case did not matter to her that we were merely chasing after money.

“The magistrate did not even bother to consider the constitution, our right to dignity which is at the heart of the South African constitution, the inhuman conduct by the accused. Our right to privacy.”

A lawyer, who did not want to be known for professional reasons, followed this case keenly and said the magistrate erred in her judgement. He said, “The magistrate failed to consider that the complainants hold a humbler position in the company, they are general workers and the accused is part of the management and therefore they ought to oblige to their superior.

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“The complainants were devastated and diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. They feel as though the justice system failed them.”

The EFF said in a statement, “It does not need a rocket scientist that this is a clear violation of human rights as the dignity of the four women was reduced to naughty [sic]. Magistrate Petzer passed down a not guilty verdict and cited that the four black women were asked to remove their underwear and were not instructed. In the eyes of Petzer this conduct was acceptable because it transpired in a toilet which is a private one and not in [a] public one.

“Furthermore, she personalised the matter and had the audacity to label the traumatized women a disgrace to society. She further cited that the case had been politically motivated due to a protest action initiated by the EFF.

“It is clear that magistrate Petzer had an agenda and had no interest in serving justice for the dehumanized victims. We will not stand by and allow the unprofessional conduct of one magistrate in the form of Petzer to tarnish the good image of our judicial system. We will ensure that the magistrate faces consequences for unprofessional conduct.”

The workers were subsequently dismissed soon after the incident last year and are under severe financial stress.

They did not disclose whether they are pursuing a civil suit.

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About Joseph Chirume 34 Articles
I was born in the shoe manufacturing town of Gweru in Zimbabwe,1970. I came to South Africa and did some odd jobs before writing for a number of publications. At present I am doing a Masters in Journalism through distance learning.