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Durban - Public servants’ acceptance of bribes, even a packet of biscuits, has been thrown into the spotlight by a recent Durban Labour Court judgment which found that the value of the bribe was not of paramount importance.

Acting Labour Court Judge Connie Prinsloo was dealing with the case of Home Affairs data capturer Mathato Mokhele who claimed she was fired in 2007 after taking only one packet of Marie biscuits to provide a faster, preferential service.

Mokhele had been charged with misconduct and was dismissed after she pleaded guilty during her disciplinary hearing.

She took her matter to the bargaining council for arbitration and the arbitrator ruled in 2010 that her dismissal had been substantively fair. She approached the labour court to review the decision and in a judgment last week, Judge Prinsloo dismissed the matter with costs as she ruled that the arbitrator’s decision was reasonable.

Mokhele argued that she was charged with misconduct despite the department’s manual stating that only gifts worth R350 and above had to be declared. She said the department had not proved she accepted any gifts worth R350 and she should not have been disciplined.

Judge Prinsloo said a Home Affairs official had testified that the overriding rule was that no gifts should be accepted at all and that Mokhele had been trained in the code of conduct.

“The evidence was that it was not about the value of the gift, but employees in the public service are paid and should not accept gifts for services rendered.

“This amount (R350) is not stipulated in the code of conduct and by no stretch of the imagination could it mean that employees could accept gifts and benefits as long as the value is less than R350,” the judge said.

The court also found that even though Mokhele’s version was that she was fired for taking one gift on one occasion, in a confession she had admitted to taking presents from funeral parlour workers and marriage officers to give their documents preference.

“I confess to taking presents for quicker services. I know what I have done is wrong and I am very sorry for that. I would like the department to give me a second chance and I promise that something of this nature will never happen again as I have learnt my lesson,” Mokhele said in the confession.

She could not explain why she admitted taking “presents” but claimed she had written the confession because she was asked to do so and she did not want to upset her boss.

The judge found that apart from the confession, Mokhele had admitted during the arbitration that she had been wrong to accept a bribe.

She said Mokhele had not said the confession was false or that she had been forced to write it.

The Mercury