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Drivers could become reluctant to give way to blue-light vehicles following the fines handed to two VIP protection unit drivers by the Pietermartizburg High Court on Thursday.
This was the concern expressed by their boss, KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Agriculture Meshack Radebe.
Hlanganani Nxumalo was fined R12 000 fine (or four years) and given a suspended four-year sentence, and Caiphus Ndlela was fined R3 000 (or two years) and a given a suspended sentence of two years.
Nxumalo fired shots on the N3, causing Anuvasen Moodley to collide with a bakkie in November 2008.
Ndlela was found guilty of reckless and negligent driving.
Six people were injured in the accident they caused.
Nxumalo was acquitted of attempted murder.
The officers were on their way to fetch Radebe, whose portfolio was then social development, from Hillcrest to inspect storm damage at Molweni, near Waterfall.
“How can we make an appointment with a disaster… (the public) don’t understand what we do?” Radebe told journalists outside the court.
He felt Ndlela had been wrongly convicted as he had not hit another car or overturned the car he was driving. He would not comment on Nxumalo’s conviction, saying he had not been there to be able to say whether it was warranted.
Everyone had been rushing to get to Molweni, he said, where eight people had died and 100 houses had been damaged. Now, he said, the issue of blue lights needed to be addressed in its totality.
Magistrate Chris van Vuuren said he had taken into account that the men were first-time offenders and had exemplary employment records.
“I have given due consideration to the fact that they are under pressure to perform and to please those whom they serve. Unfair expectations are, I am sure, placed on their shoulders. This, however, does not permit them to transgress the law and place the public in danger.
“It most certainly does not justify firing shots in the air to exert authority and impose a sense of fear upon road users.”
The magistrate described the incident as a brazen, misplaced attempt at projecting power and authority over those who dared not simply roll over and obey, even when it was impossible and unnecessary that they do so.
The men were convicted on the grounds of negligence but, Van Vuuren said, he did not think this warranted immediate imprisonment.
The pair still work for Radebe, whose portfolio is now agriculture.
Nxumalo said he was relieved the trial was over, “even though my reputation has gone down the drain”.
Ndlela was cagey about speaking to the media. He said he was going to take the matter further.
His attorney, Mohamed Essa, said that, having been denied leave by the magistrate to appeal, they would petition the judge president.
Moodley’s attorney Anthony Irons said the accident victims had been advised not to comment for fear that doing so might jeopardise a civil action that was pending.
The six are claiming R300 000 each in damages. Summonses have been served, but the matter has not yet been set down for hearing.
On Thursday night, DA provincial chief whip Radley Keys said he was concerned that the attempted murder charges had failed.
The national transport minister had made it clear that those involved in accidents would be charged with attempted murder, yet in this case the VIP guards had been let off the hook with a “slap on the wrists”.
“The system is there to protect people, but here we have VIP guards flouting the law and being given sentences that can easily be paid off, without spending a night in jail,” Keys said.
The issue would be raised in the provincial legislature next week. The National Prosecuting Authority would need to review the case to see whether justice had been done or if a retrial was needed. – The Mercury, with additional reporting by Yusuf Moolla.