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Wednesday, 26 January, 2000, 19:45 GMT
Analysis: Discrimination taints 'rainbow nation'

Woman outside township house Black women face prejudice in the job market

By Karen Williams in Johannesburg

South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, yet its citizens daily face widespread discrimination and bigotry - especially on grounds of race.

Legislators hope the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Bill will go some way to removing this dichotomy.

We will not get where we want to be as a country if we merely focus our attention on formal equality in terms of the law
Justice Minister Penuel Maduna
The bill comes a day after a report was released by the country's Commission for Gender Equality which showed that women are still grossly discriminated against in the private sector, and still earn less than their male counterparts.

Black women are the most under-represented, both in entry-level jobs, as well as in decision-making positions.

Wide ambit

Although the law covers a wide ambit of wrongs, its main focus is race, gender and disability.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) last week removed five additional grounds for discrimination: HIV/Aids status, nationality, socio-economic status, family responsibility and family status.

Election posters Five years of democracy - but discrimination lingers
But law-makers say victims of discrimination on those grounds can still apply to the courts for relief.

Justice Minister Penuel Maduna says the new bill is second in importance only to the country's Constitution.

He says the law will wipe away the legacy of apartheid and strengthen the legal basis for transforming South Africa.

"We will not get where we want to be as a country if we merely focus our attention on formal equality in terms of the law," Mr Maduna told the National Assembly.

Mixed blessing?

Yet the bill seems to be a bit of a mixed blessing.

One the one hand, it will give greater powers individuals to take very specific legal action again racial offences.

People who've been discriminated against unfairly will have a legal remedy
Political analyst Richard Calland
But critics also fear that the litigation processes - as well as the provisions on hate speech, for example, could backfire.

Some of the provisions of the bill are also quite vague.

One of the most controversial clauses is that the bill places the burden of proof on the person or organisation accused of discrimination.

The respondent must prove there was no discrimination, or on the other hand, that the discrimination was "reasonable and justifiable" - but the bill does not define "reasonable and justifiable".

This could, for example, be tricky in the admission of members to sports clubs.

Apartheid sign Apartheid-era sign: Discrimination no longer takes such obvious forms
The law specifically bans racist terms like "kaffir", "coolie", and "hotnot" - but not "boer" (often used in derogatory reference to Afrikaners) which was dropped at the last moment.

Media groups have protested this interferes with their right to report - and the government has been mum on what happens if these words appear in fictional books.

'Too much power'

The main opposition party, the Democratic Party, voted against the bill, saying it gives the justice minister too much power to appoint judges and magistrates to equality courts, which will hear discrimination complaints.

Insurance companies say that the Equality Bill will push up premiums because policy holders will be able to contest their underwriting decisions - despite the removal of HIV and Aids status from the list of criteria.

But the bill has received support from a wide range of civil society organisations and trade unions.

Working-class family The ANC relies on working-class support
"Given South Africa's past, this piece of legislation is central to ensuring that people who've been discriminated against unfairly will have a legal remedy," said Richard Calland, from the independent political think-tank The Institute for Democracy in South Africa.

He says concern from opposition parties, especially over legislation that will promote affirmative action policies, is not justified.

'Class split'

Much of the debate around the new law represents the class split in the country's political scene, Mr Calland says - the ANC championing the rights of its poor constituency, and the mainly white opposition representing the interest of big business.

The National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE), has also welcomed the law, although it is disappointed that specific clauses covering marital and HIV-status have been dropped.

"But, the clauses on HIV and marital status being dropped doesn't prevent you from arguing that you were discriminated against on those grounds in court," said NCGLE spokesperson Evert Knoesen.

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See also:
26 Jan 00 |  Africa
South Africa bans discrimination
01 Jan 00 |  Africa
Sorry, whites only
08 Jan 00 |  Africa
Racism 'still rife' in South Africa
26 Dec 99 |  Africa
The birth and death of apartheid
28 Oct 98 |  Africa
Coming to terms with the past
28 Oct 98 |  Truth and Reconciliation
Seeking reconciliation: Timeline
15 Dec 99 |  Africa
South Africa targets domestic violence
01 Dec 97 |  Africa
A new role for Afrikaans

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