/ 30 September 2007

Rumours swirl over Pikoli’s suspension

The shock suspension of South Africa’s National Director of Public Prosecutions amid silence by President Thabo Mbeki has led to concerns of “sinister” dealings and government meddling in the country’s justice system.

Mbeki’s integrity came under fire this week as his suspension of National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) chief Vusi Pikoli was linked to the alleged pending arrest of police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi, who is seen as an ally to the president.

With no reaction from Mbeki, analysts and opposition political parties fear Mbeki may have acted out of a desire to protect Selebi, also the president of international policing agency Interpol.

Analyst Steven Friedman of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa said suggestions of political interference in the justice system was cause for serious concern.

“If Selebi is not charged, clearly there will be a suggestion that the president got Pikoli out of the way to protect Selebi,” he said.

Friedman said Mbeki’s silence on the issue was damaging, bordering on disdainful, and created the impression that “something sinister is afoot”.

Selebi faced a raft of calls to quit last year when his friend, businessman Glen Agliotti, was charged with the mafia-style killing of mining magnate Brett Kebble.

Last Sunday, Mbeki suspended Pikoli due to what a government statement said was “an irretrievable breakdown in the working relationship” between the NPA chief and Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Brigitte Mabandla.

But news reports on Friday claimed Pikoli’s suspension followed within days of Mbeki learning about Selebi’s pending arrest, with the NPA believed to have obtained the warrant last week.

Opposition political parties have called for Selebi’s head, and for Mbeki to quell the speculation by breaking his silence on the alleged link between the two events.

“If the speculation turns out to be correct, then we have a dilemma,” said Human Sciences Research Council political commentator Adam Habib.

“If the president suspended Mr Pikoli on the grounds that he had issued a warrant for the commissioner’s arrest, then it suggests that an invasion is being made into an independent institution’s operations.

“Intervening in the operations of the National Prosecuting Authority constitutes a violation of our Constitution.”

Opposition Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said in a statement on Friday it “seems clear that the suspension of Pikoli was motivated by the desire of President Mbeki to protect his close ally [Selebi]”.

“The implications of this development for our democracy are profound. If true, this latest allegation … points to the fact that we have entered the phase of an imperial Presidency, where the president appears to govern almost with impunity.”

‘I will never be arrested’

Meanwhile, Selebi told the Sunday Times that he will never be arrested because a warrant did not exist.

“I will never be arrested … if there is a warrant for me I will stand on the 10th floor of the Sandton Towers so that the Scorpions can arrest me,” he told the newspaper.

“I am not bothered at all. For what must I be arrested? There is no such thing as a warrant. It does not exist. I will not comment on charges as there is no warrant,” he said.

On Saturday night, Government Communication and Information System spokesperson Themba Maseko said Mbeki had appointed Frene Ginwala to conduct the enquiry into Pikoli’s fitness to hold office.

Maseko said the former National Assembly Speaker had been appointed in terms of section 12(6) of the National Prosecuting Act 32 of 1998.

“It’s [the enquiry] going to be under way soon. I need to meet with the Doctor [Ginwala] first and will avail more details on Monday,” he said.

Maseko said he would address a press conference on Monday outlining the details and format of the enquiry.

Selebi investigation

The Mail & Guardian reported on Friday that Pikoli’s failure to give his political superiors full details of the investigation into Selebi — and possibly of Selebi’s planned arrest — led to his suspension, according to a range of official sources.

The M&G first revealed Selebi’s links to organised crime figures, and the Scorpions’ investigation into these links, in May last year. The Scorpions is a division of the National Prosecuting Authority, which Pikoli heads.

This raises the question of whether Mbeki has decided to shut down the Selebi investigation, or whether it will proceed, perhaps in a different form.

Pikoli did not take Mabandla into his confidence over details of Scorpions investigations which she felt she should know about.