Complaint of racism against hotel group

Kevashini Govender said she and her family were the victims of racism at Sante Hotel in Paarl, when they stayed there mid-week, to celebrate their son’s sixth birthday.

But the Orion Group said it had been “her perception” and she must take it up with the waiter.

However, two Cape Town attorneys disagree with Orion’s view.

Ms Govender, a clinical psychologist from De Tyger, told me her family were traumatised by the racism and shoddy service they experienced when they spent two nights at the hotel which cost them R3 600.

“When my husband, two children and I went for breakfast, we were the only people in the dining hall and my eight-month-old baby had to sit on the floor because another family was using the only baby seat the hotel had,” said Ms Govender.

They ordered their food and waited about 30 minutes.

“The waiter spoke to me in an abrupt tone but when a white family arrived, he greeted them with a smile, took their order and served them within 10 minutes. A black couple came in and also had to wait, but I don’t know if they complained. Our food arrived 80 minutes after we ordered,” said Ms Govender.

She said her husband left the table several times looking for staff and the manager to help but “they were dismissive and could not explain why the white family received their food first and better treatment than us”.

“Yes, it is discrimination. There is no other reason why my family and the black couple had to wait 80 minutes for the food while the white family got preferential treatment,” she said.

“The waiter did not make any racist comments and though he was rude and dismissive, he engaged with the white family in a welcoming way,” said Ms Govender, who wrote to Franz Gmeiner, chief executive officer and several other managers at Orion, which owns the Sante Hotel.

“They apologised but did not understand how the experience impacted on us,” said Ms Govender, who at first accepted an offer of a stay at any hotel in the group or a 50 percent refund.

Ms Govender told Mr Gmeiner: “I asked my son if he would like to return to Sante and he said, ‘the people at that hotel treated us bad’. As a mother I cannot allow my son to endure any more trauma. I do not wish to return to Sante: I would like my money back as we did not receive the service or experience for which we paid.”

Craig Butler, assistant operations manager, said the staff of Orion are coached on the group’s values, one of which is treating people with dignity and the other is “loving to serve our guests each day”, but it appears “the staff on duty that day did not achieve this”.

“Ms Govender’s complaint was investigated with the heads of departments, the staff members, the duty managers and the shift waiters. General manager, André Broerse, told Ms Govender about the company’s policy and although we do not give refunds, as a gesture of goodwill we offered her a 50 percent refund which she rejected. We then offered her a one-night stay for two at any Orion hotel valued at R3 638.60. But we have withdrawn this offer,” said Mr Butler, who added that they do not condone racism in any way and deny the allegation “as it is the individual’s perception”.

“We consider the matter closed and she must deal directly with the individual concerned,” Mr Butler said.

Ms Govender said the waiter cannot be “blamed for institutional racism and poor service”.

It was initially the waiter, then encounters with the manager, assistant operations director and CEO.

“It is not so much about the offer but more about me getting my money back for poor service and trauma of racism and discrimination,” said Ms Govender, who complained to the Human Rights Commission.

They said they were inundated with complaints but would investigate.

Marlon Shevelew of Marlon Shevelew and Associates, did not believe the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) applied in this instance, but Ms Govender could institute proceedings under the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEPUDA).

“If Ms Govender elects to institute Equality Court proceedings, she should do so against the hotel, and not the waiter. I believe the hotel is vicariously liable for the conduct of its staff members while they are on duty, and cannot absolve itself of responsibility for their staff’s wrongdoings. The waiter represents the hotel, acting within the scope of his employment,” Mr Shevelew said.

Trudie Broekmann of Trudie Broekmann Attorneys, said Sections 8 and 9 are little known aspects of the CPA which deal with unfair discrimination based on constitutional grounds.

“A supplier must not treat anyone in a way that constitutes unfair discrimination and the burden of proof is on the hotel to show that the treatment of the Indian and black families was different to the white family.

“However, if there was a problem in the kitchen or the families dithered about their order, and kept changing their minds, it would not be regarded as discrimination,” Ms Broekmann said.

Ms Govender should approach the Equality Court or the National Consumer Commission (NCC) and if the NCC found the hotel had breached the CPA it could face a substantial fine.

The procedure for laying a charge is straightforward.

Forms are available at the courts and you do not need legal representation.

However, the case must be heard in Paarl, or in Johannesburg, where Orion’s head office is.