Philani Nombembe, Times (Johannesburg), April 26, 2008
Superintendent goes to Equality Court alleging her commander told her to ‘pray God makes you white’.
Ntombenhle Kheswa joined the police 16 years ago because she wanted to serve the poor and fight crime.
But the most stressful part of her job was not dodging bullets, she says—it was surviving a torrent of verbal and psychological abuse from her boss.
Now the single mother has taken Senior Superintendent Phumzo Gela—previously in charge of the Flying Squad in the Western Cape—to the Equality Court for allegedly making her life hell.
The court battle, which begins on Wednesday, is likely to open a can of worms about the emergency 10111 police call centre in Cape Town, manned by about 200 people.
Kheswa and Gela have each drawn up damaging affidavits that paint a picture of heated police management meetings, rampant absenteeism, emergency calls going unanswered—and staff likening the man in charge of operations to Hitler.
Kheswa, former head of the call centre, claims Gela embarrassed and degraded her during management meetings.
Denying her claims, he said she was incompetent.
Matters reached boiling point last year when the stand-off was reported to the office of the National Police Commissioner—and Kheswa threatened to kill Gela.
“Senior Superintendent Gela accused me of not doing enough to address absenteeism of staff at the call centre during a morning management meeting, but I was dealing with it effectively,” her affidavit said.
“Then he said: ‘Why is it that when a white officer was commanding radio control, clericals did not book off sick but now they do?
“‘You black officers are not doing any job at this unit. Only white officers are doing a good job. You must go to church and pray that God makes you white.’
“I felt devastated, embarrassed and degraded by my commander’s statement. I became hysterical and walked out of the meeting,” said Kheswa.
They had fallen out after she recommended that two call-centre staff be fired.
She said that Gela had refused to do so at a management meeting, saying: “It does not mean if you are an officer and have pips (rank) on your shoulders you can axe people in this unit.”
She asked Gela to stay after the meeting to discuss the issue. But he refused, allegedly saying a junior could not invite him, a senior, to a meeting.
Kheswa requested counselling and eventually Provincial Police Commissioner Mzwandile Petros was called in to resolve the conflict. Petros, Kheswa claims, told Gela to stop making racist statements.
A few months later, she said, Gela again insulted her and a colleague.
She said Gela had said “we were dead” and if he was promoted he would never recommend them to replace him. He would rather get a clerk, a nurse or a teacher to run the unit.
“I was devastated by my commander’s statement since I was working very hard,” her affidavit read.
She also said that Gela had instructed police officers not to give her a lift in state vehicles even if she was on official duty.
“He kept on asking me why I was not driving the vehicle (allocated to her) and I told him that I was not ready to drive because I was still traumatised. I had nearly knocked down a pedestrian in Durban. He told me that he would demote me and send me back to Durban because I had failed to disclose it to the promotion panel.”
She was booked off sick last year, admitted to hospital for 21 days and treated for major depression. She said she was taking the matter to the Equality Court because other avenues had failed.
Gela has categorically denied Kheswa’s allegations.
In his affidavit, he said the claims of Kheswa—who likened him to Hitler in a formal complaint—were “spurious, raised solely to mask her inability to cope with her job”.
He said he had asked Kheswa to explain the “unacceptably high rate of unanswered calls (at the emergency call centre)”. She had been unable to explain it adequately, he said.
He said he had tried to help her by allowing her to use a police car at weekends, for four months, to drive on quiet roads and regain her confidence. But her driving did not improve. That was when he pulled the plug on allowing police officers to drive her around, he said.
He denied making racist remarks. He said he had told Kheswa to consult a previous head of the call centre, a white woman, to find out how she had curbed absenteeism.
He insisted he had not said white officers were doing a better job than black officers or that anyone should pray that “God makes them white”.
“I must add that I am a black South African and would not make any racist (remark) in the context stated by Kheswa.”
Kheswa is being represented by the Women’s Legal Centre .
She said: “I want him to be punished for what he did to me.
“He must not be promoted again. He is racist and has no respect for anyone except himself. He has no management skills.”