FEW people think of court decisions as inspiration for comedy. This would be a mistake. Especially if you are a lover of Norwegian Blue parrots, John Cleese and Michael Palin.
I am thinking, on this occasion, of a new decision from the labour courts, in which a problem arose because of how long the record had taken to prepare. Transcription and correction of the record of events had been inordinately delayed, and some explanation of the problem was necessary.
Judge Anton Steenkamp, who dealt with the matter, noted that after a representative of South African National Parks, one side in the dispute, had collected the papers as required, there was an unusual foul-up by the outfit that was transcribing and typing up the record.
‘It must be said,’ noted the judge, ‘that the transcriber …, one Lorraine Heinemann, of Eagle Transcription and Translation Services, did not live up to her pay-off line to “soar like an eagle/sweef soos ‘n arend”.
‘Instead she plummeted like a parrot in a Monty Python sketch.
‘An attachment to one of her emails including a draft copy of the transcript sounds an optimistic note: “Believe in your heart that something wonderful is about to happen.”
‘Unfortunately, belief in the heart is not enough; it is also up to the person doing the job to do something practical about it. For the parties in this case, not much happened for the next six months.’
The unfortunate Heinemann had also made a series of excuses for her failure to deliver on time, and these were made available to the judge. In his judgment he quoted 16 of her ‘explanations’.
Here is a selection:
‘I had to sort out my equipment and the week is too short to finish.’
‘Apologies again for the delays. I had to attend to something urgent and have cancelled further student work so as to complete your job. I had flu as well.’
‘It will go faster now; apologies again. I had a lot of opposition.’
‘I also had to attend to other urgent work in between for quicker income.’
‘I am working on day 6, I must be at day hospital tomorrow morning at 7 o’clock about this terrible wart on my finger.’
‘Apologies for delay, just making tea.’
The case being typed up by Heinemann concerned Alfred Nemahunguni, employed on a contract basis by South African National Parks.
In June 2010 he had an epileptic seizure at work. Next day his superior told him that in the light of what had happened he was not allowed to drive Sanparks vehicles any more.
As Nemahunguni is hearing-impaired this instruction was written on a piece of paper for him to see and it was then thrown away.
Despite this instruction however Nemahunguni used a Sanpark vehicle three times over the next two months. This resulted in a disciplinary hearing and a decision that he should be fired.
Nemahunguni decided to challenge the outcome and he asked for intervention by the CCMA. When conciliation wasn’t possible, the dispute was referred to arbitration.
After seven days of hearings, between January and October 2011, the commission handed down a decision in November 2011. It found that dismissal was not an appropriate sanction, that he should be reinstated for the rest of his contract and paid eight months’ salary for the period he had been dismissed.
Sanparks wanted to query the outcome and it was the paperwork for this challenge that was delayed by the non-soaring eagle and the ex-parrot.
Hawa Khan, Sanpark’s regional human resource manager, led the legal effort to have Nemahunguni’s re-employment reversed. But the way she carried out this task caused the judge to speak about her ‘uncooperative attitude’ to the litigation. He gave a number of examples including the fact that she made ‘unilateral amendments’ to the transcripts. Her attitude ‘has not been helpful’, said the court.
In the end he ruled that the decision to order Nemahunguni’s re-employment was not open to review, and that Sanparks would have to pay Namahunguni’s legal costs.
The judge marked the decision ‘Not reportable’ but ‘Of interest to other judges’. However, it’s not only judges who will be interested. All those Monty Python fans who remember the Palin and Cleese sketch about ex-parrots, those birds who have joined the choir invisible, who have ceased to be, who are no more and who have gone to meet their maker, must find the decision irresistible; a true collector’s item.