Police minister ordered to pay almost R600K to two women who were mistaken for robbers

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Police Minister Bheki Cele
Police Minister Bheki Cele
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  • Two women who were mistaken for robbers have won a damages action against the police minister.
  • The Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg found that their arrests were unlawful. 
  • The two women had only met each other the day that a woman accused them of robbing her.

Two women who were mistaken for robbers and arrested without warrants, have won a court action and have each been awarded more than R200 000 in damages.

The Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg granted the order against Police Minister Bheki Cele.

In the judgment, Judge Leicester Adams said Cynthia Morwanqana and Eunice Matshaka had never met each other before and were on their way to their hometowns in the Eastern Cape on a Friday in October 2014. 

They had to board the same bus at the terminus at Park Station in Johannesburg when their paths crossed.

Morwanqana was about eight months pregnant at the time. She was travelling all by herself and was carrying heavy bags, the judge said. Matshaka, a primary school teacher, was also travelling by herself and offered to assist Morwanqana with her luggage.

READ | Police minister, NDPP ordered to pay R1.6m to teacher wrongly imprisoned for rape

The women spent some time in each other's company while waiting in the queue for their bus to arrive.

But things took an ugly turn when a woman who was robbed in January that year saw them together and accused them of robbing her of cash and other valuables worth about R30 000 in Centurion. She claimed that the woman fit the description of her alleged robbers.

Police officers at Park Station conducted a mini inquiry and asked one of the women to call the other one's cellphone number. It did not register as a contact on her cellphone, which confirmed the women did not know each other.

Unsatisfied with the outcome, the robbery victim contacted her husband who, in turn, communicated with the Wierdabrug police station, where the charge of robbery had initially been laid, the judgment read.

The women were hauled off the bus while en route to the Eastern Cape and members of the flying squad arrested them in Vanderbijlpark. They spent several days in detention.

"The plaintiffs were shocked, dismayed and dumbfounded all at once – not to speak of the embarrassment of having been yanked off the bus in front of a busload of passengers, who no doubt saw them as troublemakers and the ones responsible for disrupting what should have been a leisurely and carefree bus trip to the Eastern Cape."

During the case, the minister admitted that the women were arrested without a warrant. He, however, denied that it was wrongful or unlawful.

But the women contended that the evidence did not establish that the officer who arrested them had reasonable grounds to suspect that they were the ones who perpetrated the robbery.

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They argued that the officer relied exclusively on the fact that the complainant had fingered them as the culprits.

Adams said the reasonable thing the officer could have done was to accept the explanation by the women that they could not have been responsible for the crime. 

"All that he needed to do was to obtain their full details and particulars, including their full names, addresses (home and work) and identity numbers, which would have enabled the investigating officer to verify their story. Even at 19:30 on a Friday night, he probably could have called the principal at the school at which the second plaintiff worked as a teacher to verify her story. This should have been done without arresting the plaintiffs.

"I am, therefore, of the view that the minister did not establish that there were reasonable grounds to suspect that the plaintiffs committed the robbery. The arrests and subsequent detention were therefore unlawful."

The judge added that the women said they were held overnight and that the conditions were intolerable.

"They were traumatised, understandably so," he said.

"The cell was dirty, and the ablution facility was disgusting. Although they were offered something to eat at about 20:00 on the Friday night, both of them were not able to eat due to the stress.

He said the arrest and detention were "undoubtedly a traumatic experience".

"I have come to the conclusion that, considering the length of period for which the plaintiffs were detained and the prevailing conditions under which they were incarcerated, it would be appropriate to award the first plaintiff (Morwanqana) the sum of R250 000 and the second plaintiff (Matshaka) an amount of R290 000 as damages for unlawful arrest and detention."

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