In the weeks and months following Jackie Selebi’s appointment, President Thabo Mbeki was criticised by opposition parties and critics for appointing a civilian and senior ANC politician to the job.
It was a risky move, but Selebi was an Mbeki loyalist. And it surely wasn’t the first time in history that a president had appointed one of his allies as chief of police.
For Selebi, it was a career-defining job. It was also an impossible job, one that was more than likely to end in tears.
In 19 99, the year that he took over, 238 23 South Africans were murdered. These were hideous figures compared with the same year’s murder rates in other countries—Argentina (21 50), Australia (700), Canada (1 221), Israel (137), Japan (12 65), Korea (976) and Swaziland (174).
While Selebi often pointed out that the police couldn’t be expected to solve the country’s crime problem by themselves, the crime rate did not decrease significantly during his tenure.
South Africa’s cold, hard crime statistics are a big blot on a legacy that was once full of promise. But it is the stain of a corruption conviction that the history books will record as the downfall of a man once feared by all the president’s men and women, including the president himself.
Selebi’s story is a tragic one—about a man who never really wanted the toughest job in the land, but was too ambitious and loyal to his political master to decline the offer.
What made it an even bigger tragedy was that Selebi also became the first African president of Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organisation.
In a press statement a few days after his election as Interpol president on October 8 20 04, Selebi said: “I am as committed as ever to reducing the levels of crime in South Africa and to playing a role in combating transnational crimes in the Southern African region. I can now also play a pivotal role in countering international crime and terrorism with all member countries of Interpol.”
Unbeknown to Interpol and fellow Africans and South Africans, Selebi had already eaten of the poisoned fruit.
The man who had succeeded in his temptation of Selebi—Norbert Glenn Agliotti—fitted well into the category of transnational organised crime that Selebi had committed himself to fight tooth and nail.
Agliotti, a flamboyant underworld character with a penchant for the finer things in life, had given Selebi R10 000 in a brown envelope on June 14 20 04—the first in a series of bribes to buy the police chief’s favour, time and influence.
This was after Agliotti was recruited by the well-known Kebble mining family. They wanted Agliotti to assist them in what they believed to be an onslaught on their integrity by a competitor whom they thought was being assisted by the country’s law enforcement agencies.
Agliotti set his price and mining tycoon Brett Kebble agreed to pay $1-million for access to Selebi. They set up a special company for this purpose and Agliotti proceeded to “groom” Selebi with growing parcels of cash, often collected by Selebi in full police uniform from Agliotti’s Midrand office.
In the meanwhile, Selebi was shamelessly performing his SAPS and Interpol duties, attending international anticorruption conferences, and leading the global fight against crime.
His taste for expensive clothing had hit full stride after the Interpol appointment and, shortly afterwards, Selebi opened an account with a luxury men’s boutique in Sandton City and started splurging on expensive Brioni and Aigner suits with money he didn’t have.
At the time Selebi was taking home just more than R30 000 a month after tax. Some of the suits he bought cost more than his entire monthly salary.
In September 20 05 Brett Kebble, by then also one of the country’s biggest patrons of local art, died in a hail of bullets while driving to a dinner in Melrose, Johannesburg.
It set in motion a series of events that culminated just over a year later in Agliotti’s arrest by the Scorpions—the National Prosecuting Authority’s successful elite investigating unit that was disbanded in 20 08—and ultimately, in Selebi’s conviction.
In May 20 09 the Mail & Guardian published details linking Selebi to a criminal syndicate dealing in narcotics and contraband. The same men were being investigated for the murder of Kebble.
Agliotti was reportedly the leader of the pack, but little was known about him. In an interview with the M&G‘s Nic Dawes on July 21 20 06, the police chief admitted: “Agliotti is someone I know since 19 92 or 19 94.
I know him as a friend, finish and klaar.” Admitting to his friendship with a man he knew was operating on the wrong side of the law would become the ringtone of the Selebi corruption story.
Agliotti’s lawyer confirmed the friendship, saying: “Our client has been a personal friend of commissioner Selebi for a number of years and meets with him socially from time to time.”
Asked whether he was concerned about the Scorpions’ investigation into people he regarded as friends, Selebi said: “They can look at anything about it. I’d say, ‘go ahead’. I’ll still be sitting here and there will be nothing that comes out of that. I am not bothered.”
It was this arrogance that finally brought down a man who thought he was cleverer than anyone else and untouchable.
For years Selebi had the political protection of the country’s highest office. This was starkly illustrated by the desperate attempt to save him from prosecution after the Scorpions unit obtained a warrant for his arrest.
In the scramble to protect Selebi the country’s prosecutions head, Vusi Pikoli, lost his job and the Scorpions unit was undermined to an extent that made it possible for the ANC to shut it down once it started sniffing around the highest echelons of power.
Selebi was one of the smartest public servants in Pretoria and a veteran of the struggle. It guaranteed him respect and safeguarded him from scrutiny. But, to borrow from the poet Yeats, when things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
Though Selebi succeeded in clinging to his job, salary and status for a few undeserved years, his dark side swiftly overshadowed his clean reputation.
This is an edited extract from Adriaan Basson’s book: Finish and Klaar: Selebi’s Fall from Interpol to the Underworld, published by Tafelberg