Privacy rights were considered in detail, including the nature and scope of the right to privacy, by the Constitutional Court in the recent judgment concerning the possession and use of cannabis. Extracts from the judgment are quoted below but it seems that the situation is best summed up by Justice Kate O’Regan who confirmed the close link between human dignity and privacy.

“It should also be noted that there is a close link between human dignity and privacy in our constitutional order.  The right to privacy, entrenched in section 14 of the Constitution, recognises that human beings have a right to a sphere of intimacy and autonomy that should be protected from invasion.  This right serves to foster human dignity.  No sharp lines then can be drawn between reputation, dignitas and privacy in giving effect to the value of human dignity in our Constitution”.

This is one of the reasons why it is suggested that it is inappropriate to use language that suggests criminal conduct when senior managers are considering disciplining or even dismissing employees.

Excerpts from the Constitutional Court judgment [without footnotes]

“Scope and content of the right to privacy

[43]        In our law the right to privacy is entrenched in section 14 of the Constitution.   Section 14 reads:

“14.  Privacy

Everyone has the right to privacy which includes the right not to have—

(a)          their person or home searched;

(b)          their property searched;

(c)           their possessions seized; or

(d)          the privacy of their communications infringed.”[1]

[44]        In Bernstein[2] this Court undertook an extensive discussion of the right to privacy.   Ackermann J said:

“Use of this term [namely, the right to privacy] has not been unproblematic, since in terms of a resolution of the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe this right has been defined as follows:

‘The right to privacy consists essentially in the right to live one’s own life with a minimum of interference.   It concerns private, family and home life, physical and moral integrity, honour and reputation, avoidance of being placed in a false light, non-revelation of irrelevant and embarrassing facts, unauthorised publication of private photographs, protection from disclosure of information given or received by the individual confidentially.’”[3]

[45]        Ackermann J also referred to the approach of Canadian courts.   He pointed out that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not specifically provide for the protection of personal privacy.   He then stated:

“As in the United States, the issue arises in connection with the protection of persons against unreasonable search and seizure, which in Canada is afforded by section 8 of the Charter.  In defining the scope of this protection the Canadian Courts have adopted an approach similar to that followed in United States jurisprudence.  In McKinley Transport Ltd et al v The Queen Wilson J quoted with approval the following exposition of Dickson J in Hunter et al v Southam Inc:

‘The guarantee of security from unreasonable search and seizure only protects a reasonable expectation.   This limitation on the right guaranteed by section 8, whether it is expressed negatively as freedom from “unreasonable” search or seizure, or positively as an entitlement to a “reasonable” expectation of privacy, indicates that an assessment must be made as to whether in a particular situation the public’s interest to be left alone by government must give way to government’s interest in intruding on the individual’s privacy in order to advance its goals, notably those of law enforcement.’”[4]

With the last part of this excerpt in mind, it can legitimately be said that the right to privacy is a right to be left alone.

[46]        Ackermann J went on to say:

“Wilson J pointed out that one of the purposes underlying the section 8 right is the ‘protection of the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy’.   Since an enquiry into privacy constitutes an important component in determining the scope of an unreasonable search or seizure, the Courts have had to develop a test to determine the scope and content of the right to privacy.   The ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ test comprises two questions.   First, there must at least be a subjective expectation of privacy and, secondly, the expectation must be recognised as reasonable by society.”[5]

[47]        Ackermann J referred to the approach of the United States Courts in determining the existence of “a reasonable expectation of privacy”.   Ackermann J then said:

“The question corresponding to determining the ‘scope of the right to privacy’ in United States’ constitutional inquiry, is whether a search or seizure has occurred.   The US Supreme Court has defined ‘search’ to mean a ‘governmental invasion of a person’s privacy’ and it has constructed a two part test to determine whether such an invasion has occurred.   The party seeking suppression of the evidence must establish both that he or she has a subjective expectation of privacy and that the society has recognised that expectation as objectively reasonable.   In determining whether the individual has lost his / her legitimate expectation of privacy, the Court will consider such factors as whether the item was exposed to the public, abandoned, or obtained by consent.   It must of course be remembered that the American constitutional interpretative approach poses only a single inquiry, and does not follow the two stage approach of Canada and South Africa.   Nevertheless it seems to be a sensible approach to say that the scope of a person’s privacy extends a fortiori only to those aspects in regard to which a legitimate expectation of privacy can be harboured.”[6]

[48]        In Bernstein this Court also had this to say about the right to privacy:

“A very high level of protection is given to the individual’s intimate personal sphere of life and the maintenance of its basic preconditions and there is a final untouchable sphere of human freedom that is beyond interference from any public authority.   So much so that, in regard to this most intimate core of privacy, no justifiable limitation thereof can take place.   But this most intimate core is narrowly construed.   This inviolable core is left behind once an individual enters into relationships with persons outside this closest intimate sphere; the individual’s activities then acquire a social dimension and the right of privacy in this context becomes subject to limitation.”[7]

[49]        In National Coalition[8] this Court elaborated on the right to privacy in these terms:

“This Court has considered the right to privacy entrenched in our Constitution on several occasions.   In Bernstein v Bester, it was said that rights should not be construed absolutely or individualistically in ways which denied that all individuals are members of a broader community and are defined in significant ways by that membership:

‘In the context of privacy this would mean that it is only the inner sanctum of a person, such as his/her family life, sexual preference and home environment, which is shielded from erosion by conflicting rights of the community .  .  .  Privacy is acknowledged in the truly personal realm, but as a person moves into communal relations and activities such as business and social interaction, the scope of personal space shrinks accordingly.’”[9]

[50]        In Khumalo[10] O’Regan J had occasion to say something about the relationship between the right to privacy and the right to human dignity.   She said:

“It should also be noted that there is a close link between human dignity and privacy in our constitutional order.   The right to privacy, entrenched in section 14 of the Constitution, recognises that human beings have a right to a sphere of intimacy and autonomy that should be protected from invasion.   This right serves to foster human dignity.   No sharp lines then can be drawn between reputation, dignitas and privacy in giving effect to the value of human dignity in our Constitution.”[11]

[51]        The case which is before us as decided by the High Court is whether the prohibition by the impugned provisions of the mere possession, use or cultivation of cannabis by an adult in private for his or her personal consumption in private is inconsistent with the right to privacy provided for in section 14 of the Constitution and, therefore, invalid.

[52]        In Case[12] the matter concerned the possession of material that was said to be hit by the Indecent or Obscene Photographic Matter Act.[13]  Didcott J pointed out that all that that Act dealt with in its penal provisions was “the possession of material which it call[ed] ‘indecent or obscene photographic matter’” and nothing else.   With the concurrence of the majority, Didcott J then had this to say about the right to privacy in the context of the case:

“What erotic material I may choose to keep within the privacy of my home, and only for my personal use there, is nobody’s business but mine.   It is certainly not the business of society or the State.   Any ban imposed on my possession of such material for that solitary purpose invades the personal privacy which section 13 of the interim Constitution (Act 200 of 1993) guarantees that I shall enjoy.”[14]

[53]        With the concurrence of Didcott J and the majority in Case, in his separate judgment in the same case Langa J qualified this excerpt from Didcott J’s judgment.   He said:

“My understanding is that this statement is subject to the qualification that the right referred to, as is the case with other Chapter 3 rights, is not necessarily exempt from limitation.   That the limitation may extend to possession even in the privacy of one’s home in certain circumstances is a possibility acknowledged by Didcott J in paragraph [93].   The precise circumstances are not a matter we are called upon to delineate here and I agree that it is wise to refrain from attempting to do so in this matter.   What is clear is that an intrusion into such privacy cannot, as was the case in the past, be permissible unless it can be adequately justified on the basis of section 33(1) of the Constitution.”[15]

[54]        That was section 33(1) of the interim Constitution which is now catered for in section 36 of the final Constitution.

There are cases elsewhere where statements along the lines of Didcott J’s statement are to be found.

In Stanley[16] the Supreme Court of Georgia had to consider the question whether “a statute imposing criminal sanctions upon the mere (knowing) possession of obscene matter”[17] was constitutional.   The Court stated that the rights which Mr Stanley was asserting included the right that Brandeis J called in his dissent in Olmstead v United States[18], “the right to be let alone”.

In Stanley the Court said that Stanley was asserting—

“the right to satisfy his intellectual and emotional needs in the privacy of his own home.   He is asserting the right to be free from state inquiry into the contents of his library.   Georgia contends that the appellant does not have these rights, that there are certain types of materials that the individual may not read or even possess.   Georgia justifies this assertion by arguing that the films in the present case are obscene.   But we think that mere categorization of these films as ‘obscene’ is insufficient justification for such a drastic invasion of personal liberties guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.   Whatever may be the justifications for other statutes regulating obscenity, we do not think they reach into the privacy of one’s own home.  If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.   Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men’s minds.”[19]

Later, the Court said: “we hold that the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit making mere private possession of obscene material a crime”.[20]

[55]        In Ravin v State of Alaska[21] the Supreme Court of Alaska had to consider the constitutionality of Alaska’s statute prohibiting possession of marijuana.   Ravin had been arrested and charged with violating AS 17.12.010.   In the trial Ravin challenged the constitutionality of AS 17.12.010 on the basis that it violated his right to privacy under both the federal and Alaska constitutions.   In that case Rabinowitz CJ said:

“It is appropriate in this case to resolve Ravin’s privacy claims by determining whether there is a proper governmental interest in imposing restrictions on marijuana use and whether the means chosen bear a substantial relationship to the legislative purpose.   If governmental restrictions interfere with the individual’s right to privacy, we will require that the relationship between means and ends be not merely reasonable but close and substantial.”[22]

The Chief Justice went on to say:

“Thus, our undertaking is two-fold: we must first determine the nature of Ravin’s rights, if any, abridged by AS 17.12.010, and, if any rights have been infringed upon, then resolve the further question as to whether the statutory impingement is justified.”[23]

[56]        After a discussion of the special place that a home enjoys in the protection of certain rights in Alaska’s constitution, Rabinowitz CJ said:

“Thus, we conclude that citizens of the State of Alaska have a basic right to privacy in their homes under Alaska’s constitution.   This right to privacy would encompass the possession and ingestion of substances such as marijuana in a purely personal, non-commercial context in the home unless the state can meet its substantial burden and show that proscription of possession of marijuana in the home is supportable by achievement of a legitimate state interest.”[24]

[57]        The Chief Justice later said:

“Further, neither the federal nor Alaska constitution affords protection for the buying or selling of marijuana, nor absolute protection for its use or possession in public.   Possession at home of amounts of marijuana indicative of intent to sell rather than possession for personal use is likewise unprotected.”[25]

Against the above discussion of the scope and content of the right to privacy, it is now necessary to consider whether the impugned provisions limit that right.

Do the impugned provisions limit the right to privacy?

[58]        It seems to me that, with changes dictated by the context, what Didcott J said in the excerpt quoted earlier from Case as qualified by Langa J in the same case applies with equal force to the case of the possession, cultivation and use of cannabis by an adult in private for his or her personal consumption in private and in the absence of children.   What this means is that the right to privacy entitles an adult person to use or cultivate or possess cannabis in private for his or her personal consumption.   Therefore, to the extent that the impugned provisions criminalise such cultivation, possession or use of cannabis, they limit the right to privacy.   The High Court pointed out that the State did not plead that the impugned provisions did not limit the right to privacy.   During the hearing, I did not understand counsel for the State to argue that the impugned provisions did not limit the right to privacy.   However, even if that was the State’s case, not much was said in support of such a contention.   In my view, the High Court correctly concluded that the impugned provisions limited the right to privacy.

Is the limitation reasonable and justifiable?

[59]        Given the conclusion that the impugned provisions limit the right to privacy, the next question for consideration is whether that limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom as required by section 36 of the Constitution.   In this regard, it is the State that must satisfy the Court that the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society.

[60]        Section 36 requires that certain factors be taken into account in determining whether the limitation of a right entrenched in the Bill of Rights is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom.   These are—

(a)          the nature of the right;

(b)          the importance of the purpose of the limitation;

(c)           the nature and extent of the limitation;

(d)          the relation between the limitation and its purpose; and

(e)          less restrictive means to achieve the purpose.

This list is not exhaustive as, ultimately, the question is whether the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom.   The impugned provisions must be part of a law of general application.   In the present case, that this is the position is not in dispute.

[61]        The justification analysis required by section 36(1) need not be dealt with on the basis of a check list approach.   The High Court relied on a report prepared by Professor Shaw et al in regard to the justification analysis.   It did not put much weight on affidavits deposed to by Dr Gous and Dr Naidoo who put up affidavits in support of the State’s case.

The nature of the right to privacy

[62]        The discussion of the right to privacy earlier in this judgment included a discussion of the nature of that right.   It is, therefore, not necessary to discuss the nature of the right to privacy again for the purpose of the justification analysis required by section 36(1) of the Constitution.”