Bheki Cele ordered to pay Durban woman R350,000 for unlawful arrest in a case of mistaken identity

Police Minister Bheki Cele was ordered to pay damages. File Picture: Oupa Mokoena / African News Agency (ANA)

Police Minister Bheki Cele was ordered to pay damages. File Picture: Oupa Mokoena / African News Agency (ANA)

Published Mar 25, 2024


A Durban woman who was arrested at King Shaka International Airport and detained in a cell described as 'dirty' and containing faeces for a week due to mistaken identity has been awarded R350,000 in damages.

This comes after police minister Bheki Cele successfully appealed against a judgment which initially ordered him to pay Cynthia Khedama R1million after she was wrongfully arrested and held for 12 days.

The judgment was made in 2022 in the Durban High Court by judge Graham Lopes.

In the appeal, Cele’s department acknowledged its responsibility for the harm caused to Khedama but argued that the R1 million awarded to her was too high.

On December 3, 2011, Khedama, who was 30 at the time and worked as a sales manager for a local fashion firm, was on her way to Turkey with her employer and his wife when she was stopped by police.

She was seated in the international departures lounge when she was approached by two police officers who took her to a room and questioned her about two hours regarding her journey.

After not being satisfied with her answers, they told her that she was going to be arrested. They took her suitcase and opened it in full view of the public and her belongings were scattered on the floor.

To Khedama, this was very embarrassing. She explained that she urged the police to contact an officer in Cape Town who had previously spoken to her regarding fraud allegations after she had lost her identity document.

Even after the police confirmed with the officer, they still detained her.

However, she was allowed to make a call to her boyfriend who had to come and collect her suitcases.

When the boyfriend arrived, he tried to talk to the police and they hurled insults at Khedama for dating a Kwerekwere- a derogatory term used to describe foreign nationals.

She was then taken to Tongaat Police Station in the back of a police van.

Upon her arrival, she was escorted to a small, dirty cell with faeces present, emitting a foul odour. Additionally, there was a filthy grey blanket on the floor, but she had no blanket to cover herself.

She said she was kept there from December 3 until December 9 2011.

After a week, she was transferred to Cape Town where her fingerprints were taken and it was proved that she was not the person they were looking for.

Despite fingerprints proving her innocence, Khedama was kept for another night. The following day, she was taken to the Philippi Magistrates’ Court where she was granted bail on December 12.

Charges were finally withdrawn in March 2012 when it was clear the she was not the person sought by police.

Khedama sued the minister in 2013.

During the appeal in the Pietermaritzburg high court, Judge Thoba Poyo-Dlwati said that the R1 million awarded to Khedama was out of proportion to the injury inflicted, instead, it was rather short of being lavish and extravagant.

“I have considered the unlawfulness of the time spent in detention and the conditions experienced by Ms Khedama in the cells, the impairment of her dignity, good name and reputation and that her arrest in front of her employer and subsequent demotion would have been a humiliating experience for her.

“...the appropriate amount which I believe is fair and reasonable compensation for the damages arising from Ms Khedama’s unlawful arrest and detention is R350,000,“ said the judge.

The minister was ordered to pay Khedama interests of R350 000 at the rate of 15.5% per annum which will be calculated from the date of the initial judgment on January 17 2022.

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