Ndebele cultural activists have described the re-instatement of a worker who was fired for being absent without consent while attending initiation as a bitter sweet victory, because he hasn’t gotten off from the incident totally scot-free.
Vusi Msiza, who had lost his apprenticeship at engineering company FLSmidth in Delmas, Mpumalanga, for absconding to attend the two-month ritual, confirmed that he had been re-instated.
“I am very thankful to everyone who supported this cause. I am also grateful to my employers for understanding the importance of my culture and for seeing reason to give me my apprentice back,” he said.
The Citizen has previously reported how the decision by some companies to dismiss employees who went for the Ndebele initiation had been criticised as insensitive and amounted to unfair discrimination.
Msiza said that he had applied for leave in April and attached a letter from the local traditional leader, as the custodian of Ndebele customs, confirming that he was expected to go for the rite of passage for two months.
“The HR department said they would come back to me but this did not happen until the day I was supposed to leave. I was told I could not be absent from work for two months. I had no other choice but to leave without permission because it was important that I undergo the rite of passage,” he said.
On April 22, Msiza (27) and hundreds of other young men went for initiation in KwaMhlanga and returned on 11 July.
When the 27-year-old reported for duty on 14 July, he was slapped with a dismissal letter, which he refused to sign.
Punished for practicing culture
The company has now made a U-turn regarding Msiza’s dismissal, for which he is grateful, but not everyone is happy about the conditions of his re-instatement.
Endumbeni Cultural and Creative Arts Centre said they were grateful for Msiza’s re-instatement, but lamented that the written warning meant he was being penalised for practicing his culture.
Founder of the centre Sipho Mahamba said there was a need for companies to align their labour policies to the constitution of the country to avoid denying workers their right to practice their culture.
“It is very disappointing that his record now has a blot just because he exercised his right to practice his culture. The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa [Contralesa] must intervene and come up with programmes to address such issues,” he said.
Mahamba said they had more than 10 people who returned from initiation to be told that they have been fired or expelled from school, but said they have managed to intervene and get almost all of them re-instated except for two.
He said one had been expelled from high school and will not be able to write his matric examinations this year.
“This is denying a child their constitutional right to education just because they exercised their right to practice their culture. This means people have to sacrifice their own culture for fear of being expelled from school. We cannot have a situation like that, in Africa,” Mahamba said.
No protection for African culture in labour laws
Cultural activist Thando Mahlangu said one of the companies involved is so arrogant that they are not even replying to their e-mail messages.
He said this is likely because the companies have nothing to fear as there are no laws protecting African workers from being penalised for practicing their culture.
“We need a national dialogue on this matter. What happens if I work and my ancestors want me to go train to be a traditional healer? That could take up to six months and it is not of my doing, it is my culture. We cannot say we are Africans, in Africa but cannot freely practise our cultures,” he said.
Mahlangu himself has been at the receiving end of prejudice based on culture, after he was kicked off the Gautrain and ordered to leave the Boulders Shopping Centre last year, because he was wearing his Ndebele traditional attire.