Fighting discrimination with fire in South Africa

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					           Diabetes in society

   Fighting discrimination
                     with fire in South Africa
   y     Stuart Murdoch

   Despite his 13 years of experience as a voluntary fire                                 While initially it was my parents’
                                                                                          responsibility to monitor my blood
   fighter, Stuart Murdoch’s application to become a                                      glucose levels and ensure that my
   professional member of the fire brigade in his home town                               diet was structured appropriately,
                                                                                          I quickly learned how to test my
   of Fish Hoek, South Africa was rejected – because he had
                                                                                          urine and blood, and inject myself
   type 1 diabetes. Upon hearing of his employers’ decision to                            with insulin. Importantly, I was
   discriminate against him on the grounds of his condition,                              encouraged to live a ‘normal’ active
                                                                                          life: I played first-team rugby at high
   Stuart felt indignant and deflated; but he was not                                     school and nowadays I continue
   defeated. This is his account of how his successful struggle                           to exercise regularly at the gym.

   against ignorance and discrimination changed the law for                               When I was 17 and attending high
   people with diabetes in South Africa.                                                  school, I applied in my home town,

       >>                                                                                 Fish Hoek, to become a volunteer
                                                                                          fire fighter. Fish Hoek, at that time,
   In 1983, nine days before my ninth        urged us to see the endocrinologist,         was not connected to the City of
   birthday, I was diagnosed with type 1     and we followed this advice.                 Cape Town. Over the years, like
   diabetes – a defining moment in                                                        other local youngsters with an
   my life. A young boy who had never        The relationship with my endocrinologist,    interest in fire fighting, I had been
   been forced to cope with significant      François Bonnici, was based on mutual        encouraged by the Fish Hoek
   problems, I was entirely dependent on     trust and understanding. My parents and      Municipality to take up this civic duty.
   my parents. Suddenly, I was confronted    I began receiving education in living with
   with a medical condition about            diabetes. I learned that it was imperative   From the beginning, the community
   which I knew nothing. The consulting      for my future health and quality of life     of fire fighters and the culture
   paediatrician gave my parents a choice:   that I take possession of my diabetes,       surrounding their work gave me
   either continue under his guidance        that I develop the knowledge and skills      a sense of purpose and belonging.
   or consult an endocrinologist. He         I would need to manage my condition.         Being able to compete with other

December 2005 Volume 50   Issue 4
On call in Fish Hoek, South Africa:
fire fighter Stuart Murdoch.
            Diabetes in society

   healthy young men in a high-                   fire fighters.Yet having given 13 years    words, “to speak his mind about the
   risk activity, despite my diabetes,            of fire-fighting service without so        truth of diabetes and society’s need
   reflected my outlook on life.                  much as a word of dissent from my          to move away beyond prejudiced
                                                  employers, these were not prepared         stereotypes.” Indeed, in the opinion
   In 1997, after completing high                 to consider me as suitable to qualify as   of the judge, this evidence was
   school, I began working as a law-              a fire fighter because of my diabetes.     invaluable in the court’s decision.
   enforcement officer with the Fish
   Hoek Municipality, patrolling the              After more than two years, my case         On our lawyers’ recommendation,
   beach and town environs. When the              reached the courts. Incidentally, about    the founder of the International
   need arose I was called upon to fight          nine months after the Cape Town            Registry of Diabetic Fire Fighters,
   fires – during normal working hours            Municipality learnt that I was making a    Tim Hoy, flew from the UK to give
   or at any other time day or night.             legal challenge to their discriminatory    evidence. Attempts were made by
                                                  employment policies, I was instructed      the Council’s representatives to stifle
   In 2003, by which time the Fish Hoek           to no longer actively fight fires; I was   this evidence as having no relevance
   Municipality had amalgamated with the          to remain in the station on telephone      to South Africa. But these objections
   much larger Cape Town Municipality, an         duty. But during that nine-month           were rejected by the judge.
   internal memorandum was circulated             period, even though I had been
   to all departments advising of vacancies       rejected because of my diabetes, no        On 18 July 2005, case law was made
   in the Fire Department. I was one of           action had been taken to “protect          in South Africa when Judge AJ Murphy
   the first to submit my application. I          me, my colleagues and the public” by       ruled that:
   passed the interview comfortably and           precluding me from fighting fires.             the Council’s decision to reject my
   the physical tests; but I was rejected                                                        application to become a fire fighter
   because of my type 1 diabetes.                 On the day the court proceedings               was based on unfair discrimination
                                                  began, I entered the witness box with          the refusal by the City of Cape
   Devastated though I was, I decided not         fear and trepidation. Our challenge            Town to employ insulin-dependent
   to give up. I sought the advice of my          to the Council was that a blanket              people with diabetes reflected
   union lawyers, who agreed to fight the         ban on people with diabetes was                unfair discriminatory policy
   case in our Labour Court on my behalf.         discriminatory and that each case              each applicant for employment
   Strangely, some of my permanent fire           should be treated on individual merits.        must be considered on their own
   fighter colleagues were unsympathetic                                                         merits and objective criteria.
   to my plight. I will never forget one of       During questioning, the Council’s
   them flicking a cigarette lighter in my        lawyers went to great lengths to           At the time of writing I am awaiting
   face and commenting that that would            discredit my evidence – without            the next Fire Fighter 1 Training
   be the closest that I would ever get           success. For two days in the witness       Course. Upon completion of this
   to a fire again. Such expressions of           box, I responded over and again            training, I will be recognized by my
   ignorance only strengthened my resolve         to the same questions which were           employers as a permanent, professional
   to overcome this discrimination.               repeatedly put to me in different          member of the fire-fighting service.
                                                  ways in an effort to encourage me to
   I was exasperated by the                       contradict myself. At one point, the
   inconsistencies in the Council’s               judge actually remarked to me that
   employment policies: candidates with           “the agony would soon be over.”
   type 2 diabetes were enrolled as fully                                                    y Stuart Murdoch
   active fire fighters; existing fire fighters   Evidence was heard from my                 Stuart Murdoch is a law-enforcement officer
   who developed type 1 diabetes while            endocrinologist, François Bonnici, who     and reservist fire fighter in the Protection
   in service were retained as fully active       for two days proceeded, in the judges      Services Department, Cape Town, South Africa.

December 2005 Volume 50     Issue 4

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