The Doctrine Of Common Purpose: When Strikers Unite
The doctrine of common purpose holds that where two or more people agree to commit a crime, each person will be responsible for the other persons’ actions which fall within the group’s common purpose or design.
This doctrine was successfully applied in the case of National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa obo Dhludhlu and Others v Marley Pipe Systems SA (Pty) Ltd  9 BLLR 894 (LAC). Here the employees engaged in an unprotected strike after a wage agreement was negotiated. The employees vacated their workstations, carried placards, and demanded that the employer’s Head of Resources be removed.
The Head of Resources, Mr Steffens, was assaulted and sustained severe injuries after attempting to engage with the striking employees. Following an interdict of the strike from the Labour Court (LC), 148 employees were disciplined and consequently dismissed for participating in the unprotected strike and acting with a common purpose in the assault.
The relevant labour union’s appeal in the LC for unfair dismissal was dismissed, as the evidence available incriminated all of the employees directly, or by association, to the strike action and assault. The union again appealed the decision, this time in respect of 41 employees who they contended could not be proved to have acted with common purpose in the assault. The Labour Appeal Court (LAC) dismissed this further appeal. It found the dismissals to be fair as the employees had associated themselves with the actions of the mob before, during and after the misconduct and that they had the necessary intent for the wrongful conduct. They had failed to distance themselves from what was happening. Further, they had acted as a cohesive whole in what transpired for all intents and purposes.
Therefore, employees should beware that even if they do not engage in the actions of a group they are a part of, they may still be found to have ‘acted’ with common purpose and face disciplinary action if they do not sufficiently distance themselves from the group’s conduct, or if they stand by and permit what is happening, or could even reasonably foresee the possibility of misconduct by the group.