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Section 9: Right to Equality

  1. Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law – Laws may not unfairly discriminate against anyone and everyone is entitled to equal rights and freedoms.
  1. Equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms. The government must take active steps to change the inequalities of the past by passing laws that promote the achievement of equality. This is called affirmative action.
    Affirmative action means taking positive action to protect or help a person or group who has been prejudiced or disadvantaged in the past, to help undo the imbalances and disadvantages that were caused by discrimination and oppression in the past. The Employment Equity Act puts the right to equality into practice in the workplace. People from designated groups (black people – including African, Coloured and Indian – women and people with disabilities) must be given equal employment opportunities and they must be equitably represented in all work categories and levels. (See: Employment Equity Act)
    The Affirmative Action in the Public Service Act covers employment in the public sector (the government service). Under the Act all government departments must have affirmative action programmes.
  1. Neither the state nor any person can unfairly discriminate against someone, either directly or indirectly. It is against the law to discriminate against anyone on any of the following grounds:
    • Race and colour
    • Sexual orientation: being gay, lesbian or heterosexual
    • Marital status: being single, married or divorced
    • Gender: social and cultural male or female roles (for example, where a woman can’t get a certain job just because she is a woman) sex: physical differences between men and women (for example, a woman is discriminated against because she is pregnant)
    • Pregnancy
    • Age
    • Disability
    • Ethnic origin: being from a particular background, such as a clan or language group
    • Culture: having a shared culture and traditional practices
    • Language
    • Religion, conscience, belief
    • Birth

It is not always the case that an action which treats people differently is an infringement of the right to equality. The Constitutional Court has decided that there are a series of questions that need to be asked before it can be found that a particular action amounts to discrimination. These questions are:

  • Does the action differentiate between people or categories of people?
  • If the action does differentiate, is there a rational connection between the action and a legitimate government purpose? In other words, does the government have a good reason for the action?
  • Does the differentiation amount to unfair discrimination?

The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (2000) creates a general prohibition against unfair discrimination and says what discrimination is against the law in different sectors of society including: in employment, education, health care, land, housing and accommodation, insurance, pensions, services, associations and partnerships, clubs, professions and the media. The Act also says how people who have been discriminated against can be compensated for this.

If someone is charged with unfair discrimination it is up to the person who is doing the discriminating (not the person discriminated against) to prove that the discrimination was reasonable and justifiable. The courts will decide if an action was unfair by looking at how the action affected the person bringing the claim.

Equality Courts can hear cases of discrimination and have powers to conciliate and mediate, grant interdicts, order payment of damages or order a person to make an apology. (See and click on Equality legislation for contact details of Equality Court Managers in the different provinces)

Case Study:

A case of unfair discrimination was brought against the president when he said that certain women and children should be released from prison as part of an amnesty programme. Hugo, the person bringing the claim of unfair discrimination, said it was unfair that men weren’t given the same treatment as women.

The argument brought by the president against Hugo was that the women prisoners were needed to look after the children and that is why it was fair that they should be released rather than the men. The court said the action taken by the president was not unfair.