/ 9 October 2009

An ace up his sleeve?

The National Prosecuting Authority’s recruitment of fugitive Billy Rautenbach to testify against Jackie Selebi may be its intended ace-in-the-hole — but Rautenbach is a card the former police chief can play, too.

Rautenbach clinched a plea bargain with the NPA last month, allowing him to return a decade after a warrant was issued for his arrest on multimillion-rand fraud and theft charges. Last week it became apparent the deal, which absolved him personally, included a silent codicil: testimony against Selebi.

Rautenbach is expected to testify about his 2005 attempt to buy a solution to his legal troubles by paying Glenn Agliotti $100 000, part of which Agliotti allegedly paid to Selebi. This would corroborate Agliotti’s confessions.

But if knowledge is power, Selebi remains one of the mightiest South Africans. His hoarding of embarrassing data and his readiness to use it are an open secret.

Rumours of top-level police involvement in leaks damaging to Jacob Zuma — including 2005 rape allegations and his wife’s heart-rending suicide note — have been fuelled by Selebi’s perceived willingness to go to war for Mbeki.

Such an approach to dishing dirt may explain Selebi’s decision to focus, in his plea explanation on Monday, on former prosecutions boss Bulelani Ngcuka’s allegedly improper interaction with Rautenbach (alongside Brett Kebble’s alleged ‘material gratification” of Ngcuka’s successor, Vusi Pikoli).

The evident purpose of Selebi’s claims was to prepare for a defence that the investigation against him was malicious: Ngcuka and Pikoli had to get him before he could have them properly investigated.

Although Selebi did not say so, he may also have implied that he had good reason to hang out with Agliotti and Kebble — from them he could learn about the corruption of the prosecuting bosses.

On Tuesday Agliotti testified that he had channelled information from Rautenbach to Selebi about Ngcuka’s dealings with him (Rautenbach).

Wrapped in Selebi’s strategy, however, is a dose of reputation-levelling dirt.

Selebi’s allegation against Pikoli was that his wife’s shares in Vulisango, a BEE company which obtained shares in Kebble-indebted miner Simmer & Jack, constituted an improper benefit.

The Pikolis have denied this, saying that ‘Selebi’s latest allegations are an attempt to deflect attention away from the very serious charges he is facing”.

Yet an examination of the issue could open a boil never properly lanced: Kebble’s very wide dispersal of his ill-gotten gains among the ruling elite to buy favour. (Exhibit A: a video, used by Zuma’s camp in the war with Mbeki, funded by Kebble.)

Selebi’s claims about Ngcuka and Rautenbach may have deeper implications for the state and those who were in charge of it then.

The claim that Ngcuka tried to extort a bribe from Rautenbach to find a ‘solution” to the latter’s problems with the law may be impossible to prove, and Ngcuka has denied it.

But a second allegation — that Ngcuka ‘was more interested in information regarding mining rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe than in offences that Rautenbach allegedly committed” — heralds an awkward look at intelligence operations in Central African wars at the time.

Rautenbach, who fled South Africa in 1999 to avoid arrest on fraud and theft charges, was appointed to head Congolese state miner Gécamines the year before in a deal between DRC president Laurent Kabila and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe to help pay for Zimbabwe’s support against insurgency from the east.

In June 2000 Ngcuka wrote to Rautenbach’s lawyer saying that ‘there is a real possibility of us finding a mutually acceptable solution” to the South African charges, but that Rautenbach had to show his ‘bona fides” by answering questions, including on whose behalf he had registered a company, Hewa Bora Ltd, in Mauritius and what he knew about ‘members of foreign governments” laundering money through South Africa.

Hewa Bora, a town in the eastern DRC, was Kabila’s rebel headquarters before taking power. Some commentators have drawn links between a Congolese airline, also called Hewa Bora, and Kabila family business interests. The airline this week denied being linked to the Mauritian entity.

In 2001, when Rautenbach fought the seizure of his assets in the high court, he claimed in an affidavit that Ngcuka had arranged for him to meet a member of the NIA to discuss a deal and that the motive for the investigation against him was ‘as part of the campaign to destroy the perceived source of Kabila’s funds”.

The government, he said, was ‘strongly opposed to the Kabila regime”. Indeed, South Africa was diplomatically close to Rwanda, which backed the insurgency against Kabila. Rumours have long circulated of an official intelligence operation — involving prominent South Africans — in support of an axis between Rwanda and Angola’s Unita rebels where their interests coincided in the Congo.

Was Ngcuka prepared to deal with the devil for the sake of an intelligence job on the wrong side of history? Brace for a riveting trial.