/ 18 November 2010

Rise and fall of a struggle hero


On August 3 2010, in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, Judge Meyer Joffe sentenced former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi to 15 years imprisonment for corruption.

The case, which had taken a number of years to come to trial, had ended, so journalist Adriaan Basson concludes his book, with ‘neither celebration nor howling, just the spectre of mortified faces leaving the courtroom. South Africa’s age of innocence was over, finish and klaar.”

Basson’s book, based on the investigations by his Mail & Guardian colleagues and his own daily coverage of the trial itself, is a detailed account of a struggle hero’s fall from grace — from activist to parliamentarian, from ambassador to the United Nations to chief of police and head of Interpol, and from there to a criminal conviction for being in the pay of organised crime. It is also an unsettling account of how government ministers and ANC leaders to varying degrees (one hopes out of disbelief that one of their own was corrupt) obstructed the course of justice.

The Selebi case would probably never have gone to court without the persistence of the National Prosecuting Authority’s (now disbanded) Directorate of Special Operations (DSO), the Scorpions. One of the best-trained special units in the world, the Scorpions’ brief was to root out organised crime. In the course of investigating smuggling and other operations centred on Glenn Agliotti and the suspicious killing of well-connected businessman Brett Kebble, they came across an uncomfortable set of connections with the high-flying (and high-living) national police commissioner.

Selebi gained international respect for, among other things, his work to ban landmines. He was appointed chief of police by then-president Thabo Mbeki in 1999. As an unconventional figure who was not a career policeman (and an Mbeki loyalist, one must add), he seemed the ideal person to turn around the ailing South African Police Service. Despite a sometimes abrasive style, he was impressive enough to be elected president of Interpol in 2004. He was also a highly public figure — appearing before the cameras, for example, at a major drugs bust at Kya Sands near Johannesburg in 2002.

But, as his later trial showed and Basson documents, in 2000 he was already in what the court found was a corrupt relationship with crime boss Agliotti and some of his less than salubrious business associates, notably Kebble and Billy Rautenbach. Selebi, the court found, shared privileged information with Agliotti and Co on police matters in return for generous gifts of money and clothes. It is even suggested that the information obstructed the work of the Scorpions in their pursuit of organised crime.

The shooting of the financially strapped Kebble, in what Agliotti alleges was an ‘assisted suicide” done at his behest by his associates, was the beginning of the end. The Scorpions’ investigation uncovered a trail of corruption and criminality that led in various directions to Agliotti but also to Selebi.

Meanwhile, Selebi’s close allies in the ANC and the police were trying their best to break the power of the Scorpions. The reasons for this are often unclear; some might say that the DSO trod on police and security toes, overstepping its authority. Others argued the Scorpions’ willingness to pursue criminals who were close to the ANC led to the unit’s unpopularity. But, for Selebi, it seems there was an added impetus; the Scorpions were getting close to him.

The Scorpions were disbanded in 2008. But, to the credit of the NPA, the case against Selebi continued, despite what some might call harassment of key figures such as Gerrie Nel, the tough prosecutor who would lead the case against Selebi in 2009. It was also costly to justice as the process entailed granting indemnity to a string of lesser offenders in return for their testimony.

It worked. The trial itself was like a courtroom drama. The climax of the case was Selebi taking the witness stand — against the advice of his counsel — and making a fool of himself. In his summation Joffe told Selebi that he was a liar on six major counts. He stated that police and intelligence services had been abused by Selebi and his supporters in trying to obstruct the course of justice. Despite Selebi’s respectable struggle and diplomatic credentials, Joffe rejected fines or suspended sentences and imposed the 15 years mandated by the law.

Basson has written a fast-paced and disturbing account of the Selebi case. In places it reads like a John Grisham novel. It is disturbing not only because the story is factual but also because it illustrates how political power can be misused in contemporary South Africa, a country that once upon a time said ‘never again” to authoritarianism and ­undemocratic values.

In resisting bringing Selebi to trial his allies in the police, security services and government used their positions to protect him. It cost the Scorpions their existence — a serious loss to crime fighting for the country. Although it cannot be shown that Selebi’s friends knew of his double life, it made many South Africans wonder whether, with the right political connections, you could not only advance materially but also act with impunity.

The book’s strength lies in the way the details of the case, both inside and outside the court, are revealed. Its weakness, perhaps inevitable with an ‘instant” book, is that the author has not delved into Selebi’s personal history: What was it that led to his fall? Beyond Selebi, what is it that makes good leaders go wrong — the seduction of easy money, the aphrodisiac of power, or some deep flaw of character that lies dormant until triggered?

On Tuesday Selebi was granted leave to appeal part of his corruption conviction on the benefits and payments he received. What happens will be an indicator of how far the rule of law is applied fairly and equally in South Africa. Will Joffe’s ruling be overturned? Will Selebi get a presidential pardon — or be released on grounds of ill-health?

Watch this space (assuming the Protection of Information Bill/Act allows it).