A Paralympian swimmer is taking a Cape Town wine estate to the Equality Court, claiming he was discriminated against when he and his service dog were denied entry to a restaurant.
Hendri Herbst, from Stellenbosch, alleges that he was stripped of his dignity when he and Stan, a golden retriever, were refused access to the restaurant at the Durbanville Hills winery in 2014.
“My then-girlfriend’s family was visiting and it was their last day in Cape Town. We had an idea to go for a drive to Durbanville Hills,” the blind swimmer explained.
“When we arrived, the hostess would not let us inside because of their ‘no dogs’ policy. I explained to her that Stan is a guide dog, not a pet.”
The party accepted an outside table, but decided to leave after “one last indignity”.
“I asked to use the bathroom. The hostess told me that I had to leave my guide dog outside and get a male to escort me to the bathroom,” Herbst recalled.
“I took this incident seriously because of the blatant arrogance to dismiss the fact that he was not a pet, but a guide dog. You and your dog are one entity – the only difference is the wet nose.”
The Stellenbosch University law student said this treatment was not an isolated incident, as he has had similar experiences before.
Herbst approached the Stellenbosch Legal Aid Clinic last year to assist in litigation against Durbanville Hills at the Equality Court, which will begin this month.
‘This behaviour is unacceptable’
Stellenbosch Legal Aid Clinic manager Dr Theo Broodryk said the case revolves around whether a person with a disability feels discriminated against on the basis of using a guide dog.
“There have been many individual incidents on this point. We are fighting for the attention of the courts, the public and the legislature. The courts must say that this behaviour is unacceptable,” he said.
Dennis Matsane, the spokesperson for wine production company Distell, said in a statement that while both parties’ arguments will be heard in full before the court, it denies any unfair discrimination against Herbst.
He disputed the athlete’s claim that he was denied entry or that he was told to have a male member of this party accompany him to the toilet.
“It is Durbanville Hills’ policy that blind people and their guide dogs are welcome to visit any part of the public areas of the cellar, tasting room and restaurant. Durbanville Hills’ buildings are also equipped with ramps and an elevator to accommodate people in wheelchairs.”
Matsane said the company respected diversity and was “committed to treating everyone in such a way that everyone’s human rights are respected in all activities of Durbanville Hills”.
He however also pointed out that any claim by Herbst has expired, as a result of the Prescription Act.
Broodryk explained that the sheriff of the court had failed to submit the complaint timeously.
Herbst maintains his version of events, saying he was dissatisfied with the manner in which Durbanville Hills handled the incident after it was brought to their attention.
“I had many meetings with the general manager and it became clear to me that their intention was just to save their corporate image,” he said.
‘You can’t tell me to leave my eyes at the door’
Outspoken disability rights campaigner Luigia Nicholas, who also uses a service dog, said that she can identify with Herbst’s experience.
The Stellenbosch student recounts numerous arguments with security guards who have very little knowledge of guide dog policies, saying she is often denied access to retail stores.
“He’s like my child. People should see us as one entity instead of two. Haiku (her service dog) functions as my eyes – you can’t tell me to leave my eyes at the door,” she insisted.
South African Guide Dogs Association spokesperson and service dog owner Pieter van Niekerk said awareness and education on the issue was necessary.
“We need to raise awareness, consult with retailers, private security regulators and private security. There is a lack of education,” he said.
“I have often been stopped by supervisors and security on an ongoing basis. Trying to get through to people at a grassroots level is frustrating.”
It was imperative for the legislature to focus on the rights of the visually impaired, Van Niekerk said.
“We don’t have a National Disability Act in South Africa like Britain. In Britain, it is a criminal act to deny access to a walking dog, but that’s a bit extreme.
“What we need to do is build a record of court cases to create a precedent so that people know their rights.”