Playing good cop, bad cop in Selebi trial

There was something very odd about Jackie Selebi’s choice of policeman to testify about his abilities and ­dedication as police chief this week.

Retired commissioner Denn Alberts was the first witness to testify in mitigation of sentence in Selebi’s trial after the former police chief was convicted of corruption two weeks ago.

Selebi is fighting the battle of his life to stay out of prison, with the state expected to ask for the minimum sentence of 15 years.

The difference between the careers and backgrounds of Selebi and Alberts could not be starker.

In 1969 Alberts joined the apartheid police force as a junior constable. The quintessential career policeman, he worked his way up the ranks, ultimately serving in Selebi’s police service as inspector-general before he retired in 2005.

When Alberts joined the old SAP Selebi was studying for a BA degree at the University of the North and became involved in anti-apartheid student politics. While Alberts was excelling as a murder and robbery detective in Nelspruit in the turbulent 1980s Selebi was living in exile in Tanzania and was sent by then ANC president Oliver Tambo to Moscow for military training.

On his return to South Africa, Selebi became a shining civil servant in the Cabinets of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, who appointed him police commissioner in 1999.

After 1994 promotion opportunities shrank for whites like Alberts, who seemed unlikely to rise above the rank of assistant provincial commissioner of Mpumalanga, his job in 1998.

But after a few stints as acting provincial commissioner in the Free State and Limpopo, Selebi and then safety and security minister Steve Tshwete surprisingly appointed Alberts provincial commissioner of Limpopo in March 2000.

His appointment was met with scepticism in the provincial ANC, with former premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi lobbying for his removal.

Ramatlhodi claimed he was not consulted on Alberts’s appointment, as he should have been, and that he was negotiating with the ANC to redeploy him.

The Limpopo legislature criticised Alberts’s appointment on racial grounds and asked whether no competent black policeman was available for the job.

After months of intense lobbying, Alberts was removed as provincial commissioner and, in November 2000, seven months after his appointment, was moved to Pretoria as head of evaluation at the crime intelligence division.

Alberts then disappeared from public life until he returned to the spotlight on Wednesday to testify in Selebi’s defence.

Selebi’s camp is not a pleasant place to be at the moment. His surprise choice of a low-profile retired cop to defend his legacy confirms rumours that his allies in the SAPS have all but abandoned him.

His formerly loyal deputies, André Pruis and Tim Williams, and confidants such as detective head Rayman Lalla and ex-crime intelligence boss Mulangi Mphego, were nowhere to be seen during Selebi’s defence or sentencing procedures this week.

Are these officers distancing themselves from Selebi, now found to be corrupt? Or was something else behind his peculiar choice of an “expert” witness?

Alberts is the stereotypical Afrikaner police general from a bygone era—grey suit, shoes, hair and moustache, and a strict disciplinarian, for whom respect comes with the title.

His words were measured, as he took care not to condone Selebi’s corrupt acts.

In his evidence in chief he praised Selebi as a “brilliant” leader who was “hands-on” and followed an “open-door policy” that saw “very junior” policemen spending long periods in his office.

During cross-examination, prosecutor Gerrie Nel turned things around, getting Alberts to admit there is nothing worse than a corrupt cop.

Alberts conceded he had not followed the trial very closely and one gained a strong sense that he would have preferred to keep alive the memory of the “old” Selebi—strict, hard-working, hands-on.

What is likely to be his last court appearance may have been the most difficult one for this career cop—who was trying to defend the indefensible with his head held high.

Arguments for sentencing will resume on August 2.

This article was produced by amaBhungane, investigators of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit initiative to enhance capacity for investigative journalism in the public interest. www.amabhungane.co.za.

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