She’s not your average ‘girlie’

2014-05-08 00:00

BARBARA Cloete admits she’s a “girlie-girl investigator”.

Wearing Lady Di heels, she makes daisy patterns on a Rubik’s Cube at Telkom’s investigations office in Durban, while she waits for crime data on a cable theft gangster.

She is so petite that a thug once picked her up and simply tossed her over a bridge on Umgeni Road.

And she is so tough that she walked home from that attack with a fractured pelvis.

“Well, I seem girlie, but — ahem!

“I was once charged with assaulting a man: punching his lights out,” she chuckles.

One of just four cable theft investigators for Telkom in KZN, Cloete has achieved convictions in all but one case in the past two years, and is arguably the detective most feared by the kingpins.

Last year, she was listed on a syndicate hit list.

“If one of my cases is thrown out of court after I make an arrest, they know there is going to be hell to pay,” she says.

Recently, while recovering stolen Telkom cable used as illegal electricity connections at an informal settlement in Stanger, Cloete, 41, found herself in a bizarre tug-of-war with angry residents.

“While I was trying to pull it out on my side, people 20, 30 metres away were pulling it the other way. We were lucky they didn’t shoot at us: they’ve shot at us before.”

As an honours pupil at Durban Girls’ High, she was once offered a bursary to study microbiology.

“But I’ve wanted to be a cop for as long as I can remember,” she says.

Cloete rose to the rank of captain within the SAPS crime intelligence unit on Point Road, and led Durban’s war on designer drugs.

It was during that time that the thug recognised her as the cop who arrested a fellow gang member, while she jogged in civilian clothes along Umgeni Road.

Dissatisfied with advancement within the SAPS, she was hired as a private investigator with an international profile, and pursued leads from the deserts of Arizona to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong and Manila.

But, for her, the phenomenon of cable theft in South Africa presented “a fantastic challenge”, and she chose to join Telkom’s battle against a R247 million annual loss.

“There is nothing petty about it — the entire economy is being harmed by these syndicates, and it is very tough to crack.”

Cloete says copper crews are becoming increasingly violent, “and bringing their own security, with AKs”.

“There’s a dealer in Chatsworth who is paying thieves in heroin — they just haven’t been able to convict him,” she says. “We have to get these guys off the streets.”

She describes a showdown with one alleged kingpin, “I call him Father Christmas. He stood like this, in my face,” she says, describing a tall man staring down on her from inches away, “and he said, ‘Catch me if you can’. I said, ‘Okie dokie, then you’d better get yourself a good lawyer.’”

That dealer is currently facing theft and racketeering charges.

Cloete knew nothing about cable theft two years ago. “We never saw copper in police exhibit rooms — it wasn’t a crime we heard about”.

Now, as she drives the streets of Cowies Hill, investigating a new syndicate, she trots out the kind of knowledge you’d expect in an academic thesis.

“Westville has older underground copper than upper Highway areas — it still has lead casing around the copper, which makes it more valuable for thieves. They sell the lead as well,” she says.

Other cable theft units in KZN are dour places.

But Telkom’s messy office, piled high with exhibit boxes in a barracks-like building within Durban’s municipal precinct, is alive with fun.

One of Cloete’s colleagues, Andrew — who Cloete calls “a kitty cat” — wears seven earrings and leather surfer necklaces; another, Gareth, is a prankster.

When someone refers to a former female colleague — now working for the scrap dealers she once probed — Cloete claws the air and lets out a feline hiss.

She keeps sane by finding humour in the toughest cases. “In January, our security guys were shot at by cable thieves. Our guy got such a fright, he even jumped out the car window. I told him, ‘if you try climbing out that window now, you’d never fit!’.”

But the team takes it personally when reports arrive about a child electrocuted by illegal power connections. Between the teases, they build a strategy to nail the guy selling the exposed copper. The day after The Witness spends a shift with the team, they are told they have to leave for a dealer raid in Newcastle before five the next morning. She chirps, “Great — who’s bringing the coffee?”

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