Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/African News Agency (ANA)
Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/African News Agency (ANA)

Woolworths suspends employee for wearing isiphandla (sacred wristband)

By Khaya Koko Time of article published Feb 4, 2020

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Johannesburg - Woolworths is embroiled in a cultural storm after the retail giant suspended an employee for wearing isiphandla, a traditional animal skin wristband.

Mathapelo Nkopane was suspended last month and is being investigated by Woolworths in Blairgowrie, Joburg, for wearing her cultural wristband since March last year after she performed an ancestral ceremony.

The upmarket food and clothing outlet has been accused of “unfair labour practices”.

This as Section 6 of the Employment Equity Act prohibits the unfair targeting of employees on a range of issues, including cultural and religious beliefs.

Nkopane, who resides in Soweto, said she started working at the Blairgowrie Woolworths in February 2018 as an interactive co-ordinator and had her first sphandla in September that year.

“Prior to my traditional ceremony (in September 2018), I got approval from my line manager confirming that it was not a problem to wear isiphandla, as long as I covered it while fulfilling my work duties.

“During March last year, I had my second traditional ceremony and received my second sphandla, which I wore for a period of 10 months and no issues were raised,” Nkopane explained.

“It was last month when we had a bakery specialist that an issue was raised.

“The specialist advised the managers to move me to another department until the sphandla falls off because there was a mutual understanding that I couldn’t remove it for cultural reasons,” she said.

Mkhulu Collen, a cultural expert with the Traditional Healers Organisation, said isiphandla cannot be removed by any person and it needed to fall off on its own.

Nkopane explained that after it was arranged for her to be moved to a different department she was called in and asked to write a statement explaining why she had isiphandla and whether she received permission for it.

“Following the explanation, I was suspended with immediate effect and told that I’m under investigation until further notice,” Nkopane added.

On Monday, The Star spoke to Woolworths Blairgowrie manager Xolile Zondo, who acknowledged Nkopane’s suspension but refused to comment further.

“This is an internal matter. I’m not allowed to share any private information with you because you are not part of this business,” Zondo said.

However, senior labour lawyer Michael Bagraim said Woolworths Blairgowrie was engaged in “unfair labour practices”, saying the store would lose the case should it go to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

“It certainly is unfair labour practice. One needs to look at the policies surrounding (isiphandla). But if it does not affect the work and it is neat, I think that would be unfair labour practice.

“They (Woolworths) will lose the case if she (Nkopane) were to take it to the CCMA,” Bagraim contended.

“They would need to show that there are practical reasons for why she needs to have it removed.

“An example would be the Jewish skull cap; as long as it is neat, why would you want (a Jewish male) to remove it?

“So I think it is unfair labour practice,” Bagraim added.

Collen said isiphandla was sacred to African religion as it is worn after a ceremony for people to connect with their ancestors.

“Isiphandla is recognition from the ancestors that you belong to the family. We don’t just wear animal skins for fun,” Mkhulu Collen said. 

@khayakoko88

The Star

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