A former ANC Youth Leader, Jackie Selebi’s rise from struggle days to top diplomat, police chief and head of Interpol was spectacular, yet overshadowed by his more spectacular precipitous fall from grace after befriending and taking bribes from gangsters. M&G's investigative journalist Adriaan Basson captures the stuff of history in a definitive new book on the disgraced police commissioner. By MANDY DE WAAL.
“Fascinating, but frightening.” That’s how Adriaan Basson describes the 50 days he spent in court witnessing Jackie Selebi’s trial play out like a Martin Scorsese movie. The central characters were the lone, pathetic former top cop and Glenn Agliotti a suave, flamboyant gangster accused of murder, but testifying for the state. “It is seldom that journalists get a chance to see the important power brokers, and hear big organized criminals… to see them fighting it out in public,” says Basson. “It was fascinating and frightening at the same time.”
“Finish & Klaar: Selebi’s Fall from Interpol to the Underworld” may be a rare moment in South African history now that the Scorpions are but a memory. “I am sceptical about whether we’ll ever see this again. I am not sure if we’ll see a police chief on trial again, if there is a crooked police chief in town, now that we don’t have a unit like the Scorpions that is independent of the police. Internationally it is accepted that you have to have an independent parallel investigating unit that can ‘guard the guardians’. We lost that capability with the closing down of the Scorpions.”
In July the former president of Interpol and police commissioner was found guilty by Judge Meyer Joffe in the Johannesburg High Court of corruption and of accepting bribes to the value of R166 000 from Agliotti in return for favours. Sentenced to 15 years, Selebi was granted leave to appeal.
“Selebi was very arrogant in court. He was reserved, wasn’t pleasant and didn’t speak to reporters. He sometimes joked with one or two reporters, but it was always in the context of ‘Ag, this is such a ridiculous case. What are the chances that I’ll be convicted?’ It was all about denial. Remember that until today he still denies taking money, still denies doing anything wrong,” says Basson.
In court, Selebi was the figure of isolation. His back largely turned to his family there to support him, Selebi paced the halls occasionally speaking to a security guard or sitting with his lawyers. For the most part he was alone. “In court he always had a black cushion with him that was embroidered with ‘Pavarotti in Africa’. What a contradiction. For me it was a sign of a previous life that had now gone terribly wrong.”
Selebi aside, Basson says the other gripping part of the trial was hearing Agliotti addressing a public forum. When I ask Basson about his impressions of Agliotti, he chuckles and reads a paragraph from his book: “Norbert Glenn Agliotti is not the kind of guy you would want as a friend. Don’t be fooled by his charm, sense of humour or big heart. He is a self-confessed liar who has no scruples about using friendship to enrich himself. He’s the kind of guy that, if you meet him in a pub, wouldn’t exactly be able to tell you what he did for a living. Import and export business, maybe. Transportation sometimes. Fixing mostly.”
Basson reckons Agliotti is probably one of the luckiest guys in South Africa. “He has been able to get out of this thing without a sentence. He’s still on trial for the Kebble murder, but things aren’t looking up for the state. Agliotti is very smart… street smart. He presents the image of being clean, a good father and well dressed with expensive perfume. But this is a man who was convicted of being part of huge international drug smuggling rings where hashish was trafficked from Pakistan through Iran and the Netherlands, to South Africa. He’s a big player.”
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A great sadness of the Selebi trial is that we’ll never get to know the full extent of Agliotti’s dark influence. Basson attributes this to the Scorpion’s “domino method” of taking down smaller crooks to get to the big guns, together with the fact that Agliotti turned state witness and was not a co-accused in court.
“The fascinating part of the trial was hearing Agliotti talk about the kind of stuff they were busy with and how they operated with the Kebbles. Glenn was the fixer, the guy who would organise it all and show off his asset, Jackie Selebi.” Basson says Agliotti would convince people he had Selebi “in his pocket” and sold the police chief to the highest bidder. “Agliotti convinced the Kebbles to pay him R1 million just to have access to Selebi. They would have these big dinner parties with wine and nice food. Brett Kebble was always flamboyant, would entertain them and they would talk about the criminal investigations against Kebble and his father, Roger,” says Basson.
Selebi grudgingly admitted in court that he attended these events, but Basson recalls Selebi insisted he never had malicious intent. “But if you look at the series of events that happened, which included meetings in car parks… There was this one occasion where Selebi drove to the Makro in Woodmead and stopped in the parking lot. Agliotti got into his car next to him and Selebi showed Agliotti a confidential intelligence report that implicated him. It was like a Hollywood story, too good to be true.”
Fascinating, but as Basson says, also frightening. Here was South Africa’s top cop, the key man charged with fighting crime in this country, consorting with a convicted drug lord and showing him classified intelligence reports. “That scared the shit out of me. It makes you wonder what else has been going on in the police for the past 10 years. Whether there was a trickle-down effect,” says Basson. “I believe in the saying that ‘the fish rots from the head’. One can just speculate about the impact of this case. What effect it has had on the rest of the police, particularly when a low-level, under-paid policeman reads about his boss being implicated in these things. I suspect that would have a very negative and de-motivating impact.”
A former Beeld crime reporter, Basson joined Mail & Guardian mid-2007 soon after Vusi Pikoli was fired as head of the National Prosecuting Authority by then-president Thabo Mbeki. The official reason given at the time was an “irretrievable break down in the working relationship” between Pikoli and the minister of justice. “I was part of the team that broke the story that Vusi Pikoli’s suspension was directly linked to Selebi’s pending arrest. That Pikoli and his team obtained the search warrants for Selebi,” says Basson. “I still believe that was the real and only reason for Pikoli’s suspension and ultimate axing.”
Basson has never interviewed Selebi, but not for lack of trying. “He was a very ‘hardkoppig’ (hard headed) and difficult. We tried to speak to him and saw him often at crime scenes and crime stats releases, and I always found him to be extremely arrogant. Your typical old-school, Calvinistic, ‘my word is final’ character. I understand to a certain extent that you need that in the police, but it was difficult to get through to him. He was always protected by this crowd of spin doctors.”
Before entering the police force, Selebi was well regarded because of the work he did as SA’s representative at the UN and at the department of foreign affairs. “Apparently he turned the department of foreign affairs around in one year and was a fantastic manager. I dug up some old articles and there was a lot of praise heaped on him for doing that. When he went into the police, I think it was a sensible appointment at the time, and he was clearly held in high esteem by the ANC leadership, especially Mbeki, who was a close friend.”
Basson says Selebi was well suited for the position of police chief when he took over from George Fivas. “Selebi didn’t come from the bantustan police services and also not from the old SAP. He was trusted by the ANC and managed to get respect from fellow officers, but I have subsequently spoken to a lot of policemen who have said: ‘Thank God he has gone.’ They always suspected something, but no one was brave enough to speak out.”
How exactly did Selebi fall from grace? While doing the research for his book Basson says he came across a Drum article written by a former student of Selebi’s that paints a picture of him as a rebellious teacher. “He was this teacher who smoked, and he let the children smoke in his class. He never went with the other teachers to the teachers’ hall during breaks. He’d take the children away on camps and come back two days later than he should have.” That’s the first glimpse of Selebi’s darker side, of a man who was a maverick, who enjoyed gangster novels and apparently bucking authority.
“It is difficult to say when things started to go wrong for Selebi. His friendship with Agliotti began soon after he joined the police service.” Selebi was appointed commissioner in 2000 and it wasn’t long before Agliotti was knocking on the door. “If you look at the timeline of events, the criminals pounced on him soon after he got the job. Agliotti almost immediately reconnected with him following their first brief meeting many years ago. I have a theory that these people in powerful positions are very vulnerable to criminals, because that is what gangsters do. They pay you, get you in their pocket and try to compromise you as soon as possible.” DM