26 November 2020
The house owner did not hear when Ms Mahlangu drowned in the family swimming pool. She was a domestic worker who had given 22 years of her life to tending to that family’s needs. Like most domestic workers in South Africa, she was a Black woman. Her daughter – Sylvia Mahlangu – sought to claim compensation from a statutory fund set up for employees who suffer injuries at work. Her claim failed because the legislation excluded domestic workers, like her mother, from the definition of ‘employee’ (see here, (xviii)(d)(v) excluding “a domestic employee employed as such in a private household” from compensation).
The Constitutional Court of South Africa unanimously held that the exclusion of domestic workers from the statutory definition of employee breached the right to equality (see here), and, by majority, the rights to dignity and to social security. What I wish to focus on in this post is the diverging approaches to equality between the ‘dissenting’ judgment of Jafta J, on the one hand, and the ‘majority’ judgments of Victor AJ and Mhlantla J, on the other. In particular, I wish to focus on the way Victor AJ and Mhlantla J relied on the concept of ‘intersectionality’ to understand what was truly constitutionally offensive about excluding domestic workers from the statutory definition of employee. What follows is a necessarily high-level overview (at the risk, I accept, of being somewhat blunt). I hope the reader will understand that it is due to the constraints of space in a blog-post; I can only direct the interested reader to the judgments themselves.
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