Regspraak: Die konstitusionele hof verwyder die reg van werknemers om nie onbillik ontslaan te word nie uit die beskermingsveld van die handves van regte – grondwetlike gesigspunte

Author: IM Rautenbach

ISSN: 1996-2207
Affiliations: Universiteit van Johannesburg
Source: Tydskrif vir die Suid-Afrikaanse Reg, Issue 1, 2021, p. 145 – 159


Section 39(2) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, recognises the existence of rights not protected in the bill of rights. The South African bill of rights protects human conduct and interests extensively. Before the AMCU judgment was delivered, no clear example of a right not protected by the bill of rights had been identified in case law and legal literature. In the AMCU case the constitutional court deviated from previous judgments by holding that the interests of employees not to be dismissed unfairly is not covered by the right to fair labour practices in section 23(1) of the constitution. The court based its finding on textual and contextual interpretive considerations. Its interpretation of section 23(1) was not sound. A narrow, grammatical approach, namely that the text of section 23(1) does not refer expressly to such a right, cannot be followed when the meaning of open-ended constitutional phrases like “fair” labour practices is determined. And an extra-textual reference to the protection of the right in ordinary law is not relevant when the meaning of a constitutional provision is determined. Aspects of human dignity and physical and psychological integrity cannot be removed from the protective ambit of the bill of rights because they are protected by ordinary rules of the law of delict and criminal law. Viewed contextually with the other provisions of the bill of rights, the constitutional right to fair labour practices, like the right to access to housing, food, health and social services, children’s rights and criminal and civil procedural rights, protects other constitutional rights in a particular field, in this case in the field of labour relations. Apart from the fact that it can hardly be contested that every employee has a vital interest not to be dismissed unfairly, many other rights, for example, to human dignity, physical and psychological integrity, economic activity, association and audi alteram partem, may be limited factually by dismissals and dismissal procedures. The scheme and ethos of the South African bill of rights is that these special rights that overlap with the general rights are guaranteed separately. Within this context one of the ironies of the artificial exclusion of a right from the protective ambit of the special right is that its violation may, like in systems without these special rights, be challenged on the basis of the unjustifiable limitation of the general rights. A rule of thumb that the protective ambit of constitutional rights should be interpreted restrictively because the application of the weak rational relationship test as part of the rule of law serves the separation of power principle better than the application of the stricter reasonable test for the limitation of constitutional rights (in the separate concurring judgment of Theron J) is questionable. Whereas legality as part of the rule of law is always complied with when the weak rationality relationship exists, reasonableness in terms of section 36 does not always amount to the application of a stricter test. The existence of a very compelling purpose (to combat a pandemic that threatens life and limb) or a factually slight limitation of a right (to stop at a stop sign) could be the basis of a conclusion that the limitation is justifiable when the weak rational relationship test is complied with. The court’s consideration of proportionality under the umbrella of the application of the weak rational relationship test causes more uncertainty in the present somewhat unruly field of the application of rationality tests.