Man who hugged, kissed colleague inside lift and said ’I’ve never done this to a white lady before’ fired
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Johannesburg - The Labour Court has upheld the SA Institute of Chartered Accountants’ (SAICA) decision to axe an employee who tickled a female colleague with his beard, gave her a “bear” hug and kisses.
Thandanani Umlaw, a project manager, was found guilty of sexual harassment based on these acts he committed in the company lift on October 6, 2017.
The unexpected events that left the colleague, referred to as Ms S, feeling sexually violated started with just a compliment of Umlaw on his newly-grown chinstrap beard.
She found Umlaw alone in an elevator at their SAICA Joburg workplace and complimented him that his beard looked good on him.
The conversation extended to Umlaw telling her that he used his beard to tickle, and proceeded to demonstrate how he did this.
The demonstrations, the Labour Court found, included rubbing his bearded face against Ms S’s face in a tickling manner, giving her a bear hug and a kiss on the neck and face.
The Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) was the first to confirm SAICA’s finding that Umlaw was guilty of sexual harassment and should be summarily dismissed.
He then dragged the matter to the Labour Court in Braamfontein to argue for unfair dismissal.
Judge Edwin Tlhotlhalemaje heard that Umlaw told Ms S he “had never done this to a white lady before”. This was after tickling, hugging and kissing her.
Ms testified that the encounter left her shaken. While she initially left the building, she returned and reported the incident to her superior.
She testified that she felt sexually violated and would never be able to work with Umlaw again if he were reinstated.
Umlaw, who represented himself after pro bono groups and attorneys refused to assist him, submitted to court his actions in the lift were consolatory and not sexual.
He said he hugged and kissed Ms S on the forehead after she told him she had been hurt in a relationship before.
Umlaw said he further told her: “Hey, I have never kissed a white lady before… it’s gonna be alright”.
He testified that he saw Ms S when they were both driving out of the building and apologised for his white lady “joke”.
According to Umlaw, her reply to the apology was: “Okay, no problem. Thandanani please don’t hug me again, I am literally shaking.”
The starting point in the matter, Judge Tlhotlhalemaje said, was to question how one could take compliments on looks for an open invitation to hug and kiss.
“Normal and civilised citizens will ordinarily reply with a simple ‘thank you’ and carry on with their lives,” he said.
Umlaw’s actions were in line with the “typical misogynistic and patriarchal alpha male, who holds the view that females are there at his disposal and for his pleasure”, the judge said.
“To say that this approach is perverse is indeed an understatement,” Judge Tlhotlhalemaje added.
“Just on the first occasion that the incident took place and, based on the applicant’s own version, this was without more, sufficient to attract the severest of penalties by SAICA, as the conduct in question clearly constituted sexual harassment in its most reprehensible form.”