Unisa crumbles in Orr case

Unisa staged a thorough retreat on Thursday when it accepted a settlement offer from former employee Margaret Orr that it had turned down the day before.

Orr’s victory in this week’s Labour Court case followed one two years ago when she took the university’s then-chairperson of council, McCaps Motimele, to court over alleged sexual harassment.

The matter was settled out of court for R150 000.

Orr argued in the Labour Court this week that Unisa, in its capacity as Motimele’s employer, failed to protect her or discipline Motimele in any way. This “rendered [Orr’s] continued employment with [Unisa] intolerable”. Her case against Unisa for constructive dismissal began on Monday, with Orr demanding R720 000 in damages and a public apology.

On Monday, Unisa entered a last-minute plea amendment, asking the court to dismiss Orr’s application on the grounds of the earlier settlement in the sexual harassment case. On Wednesday, with Judge Ellem Francis still to rule on Unisa’s plea, Orr offered a settlement that Unisa rejected. Judge Francis then rejected Unisa’s plea.

“The sticking point on my settlement offer was their refusal to make a contribution towards my legal costs,” Orr told the Mail & Guardian. “Ironically, within 20 minutes of their refusing the settlement, the judge ruled against them.” Unisa was ordered to pay Orr’s legal costs in opposing the university’s plea.

But on Thursday, Unisa accepted Orr’s offer. The settlement obliges Unisa to apologise unreservedly for “the personal and professional damage caused to [Orr] by the incidents of 2000”.

Another term of the settlement is that Unisa make its Sexual Harassment Policy a “living document”. The university agrees to develop a code of conduct for council members, which includes a process for dealing with any grievances against members.

The university has also agreed to invest R500 000 in a bursary fund for black female students, to be called the Margaret Orr Women’s Empowerment Award. Orr is to play a vital role on the committee that decides the criteria for successful bursary applicants.

Unisa agreed to contribute R430 000 towards Orr’s overall legal costs, including those incurred during the plea amendment hearing.

Orr had alleged that Motimele’s harassment of her began early in 2000, and that her attempts to use formal Unisa channels to protect herself failed.

In December 2000, Orr resigned from Unisa, where she was a professor, a member of Unisa’s council, senate and Institutional forum, the chairperson of the Academic and Professional Staff Association, and the coordinator of the job evaluation and performance appraisal project.

On Thursday a triumphant Orr said she finally feels able to get on with her life. “I am jubilant. Four years of legal wrangling during which I could have been writing a great South African novel are finally over.”

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