Michelle, this is indeed a stressful time for your mother, you and the family and it is never pleasant to have to deal with other issues rather than concentrating on your mother’s health issue.
It must be stated at the outset that there is a very specific procedure that an employer must follow when assessing the operational requirements of the business and the capacity of an employee to perform his or her tasks, duties and responsibilities. The Labour Relations Act, 1995 is very clear that any separation proceedings must be fair and in accordance with fair procedure.
The employer must therefore fully investigate the extent of the ill-health and must evaluate whether it is permanent or of a temporary nature. In the case of your mother, she is going to hospital and only once she has had treatment and a full evaluation has been done of her situation and her prognosis, can one then begin to consider whether any action should be taken. It is therefore clear that the manager is very premature in making the comments that he made.
There are other aspects that must in any event be considered, depending on the recovery of your mother and her ability to return to work. An employer must also consider alternative employment opportunities and in those alternatives also consider relevant factors including the nature of the position that your mother holds, the period of her stay in hospital and post-hospital absence from work, the seriousness of her illness and related issues.
So, to crisply answer the question – your mother’s employer will not be able to take any arbitrary action regarding her employment with adhering to due process and the letter and the spirit of the law. Should the employer undertake such action, it can be brought before the relevant tribunals to account for its actions. In this instance, I would recommend that you immediately consult with a labour lawyer in your area, alternatively visit the local office of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) for advice and assistance in this matter.
Please do submit another question to the website if I can be of any further assistance – and please do wish your mother well as she undergoes her treatment.