Police lawyer grills axed top cop Vearey on ‘lighting up shadows’ Facebook post

The third day of an arbitration hearing at the sectoral bargaining council in Cape Town on the May dismissal of former detective head Major General Jeremy Vearey adjourned early on Wednesday because of technical glitches.

Advocate Omphemetse Mooki, representing the South African Police Service, had  opened his cross-examination by indicating he would put forward copies of Vearey’s social media posts that led to his firing, as well as video material. 

Mooki also indicated that Vearey’s appreciation of words would be central to his questioning.

“I got the sense in your evidence [on Tuesday] that you appreciate the meaning of words. And that you don’t use words idly. You told the arbitrator part of your interests is in literary words,” Mooki said, to which Vearey conceded.

Words are central to the case — Vearey was fired over a series of allegedly derogatory social media posts, which authorities said brought the police service into disrepute. He says some of his words were incorrectly translated.

During Vearey’s evidence on Tuesday, it was noted he is an avid reader of philosophy and poetry and an award-winning author — having recently published his second book, Into Dark Waters, after his debut, Jeremy Vannie Elsies, in 2018.

The disputed Facebook posts that ultimately led to his dismissal make mention of the literature work of William Shakespeare, namely his play Henry V, as well as that of American novelist Don DeLillo. 

In May, Eastern Cape police commissioner Lieutenant General Liziwe Ntshinga found that Vearey brought the police service into disrepute with his social media posts, and said that anything short of dismissal would amount to condoning his conduct.

After he was fired, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union lodged a dispute with the bargaining council in terms of procedural and substantive fairness, leading to the current arbitration process. 

On Wednesday, Mooki drew attention to one of Vearey’s Facebook posts made on 7 December 2020, which read: “Good morning and how is the mind today? Lighting up the shadows.” 

The post linked to a Daily Maverick article, “Deep Dive: Sitole vs Jacobs: what lies behind the top-level rupture at the SAPS?”. Accompanying the link was a picture of National Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole. 

The December 2020 article deals with, among other issues, the suspension of Lieutenant General Peter Jacobs as head of Crime Intelligence and makes reference to Vearey and Jacobs’s labour court battle with then acting commissioner Khomotso Phahlane. It also includes reference to Jacobs implicating Lieutenant-General Khombinkosi Jula — a former provincial commissioner of the Western Cape — in a 2018 report alleging “rogue elements” in the province. 

Mooki said the article suggested dark workings within the SAPS, to which Vearey responded: “No not necessarily: it suggests things that were already done which came into the public domain.”

However, Mooki maintained the article hinted at “machinations” within the police, adding: “it suggests things are not straight” within the service.

Vearey conceded that “there is an element of that being suggested, yes”.

Mooki then put it to Vearey that his commentary on Facebook was about the SAPS “and what the article says about the South African Police service”.

“You are commenting about lighting up the shadows with reference to senior management within the SAPS. You are lighting up the shadows in revealing that which is hidden to do with senior management,” he said.

Vearey disagreed: “I am not saying I am lighting up the shadows, I’m saying the article in so far [as] it covers certain facts [is] lighting up the shadows.”

Mooki however argued that “lighting up the shadows” was Vearey’s choice of expression, because those words were not in the article. “It was a deliberate application of mind on your part to use that expression precisely. Because you know the meanings of words,” he said.

Vearey had, on Tuesday, described his interpretation of the quote “lighting up the shadows” as “metaphorical” and “hyperbolic”. 

“The phrase was intended as meaning that the article makes a worthy attempt to explore the possible undercurrent elements in its subject. In other words, taken literally, it attempts to clarify the story behind the story by illuminating angles that might not be that obvious at first glance,” he said.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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