Is it a terminal disease, Alzheimer's, kidney failure or audacious hubris? The former national police commissioner is afflicted with something serious, other than denial that he is condemned to spend the rest of his life behind bars. By MANDY WIENER.
Two and a half years ago, on the eve of Bheki Cele’s appointment as national police commissioner, I sat in Jackie Selebi’s Waterkloof home, amongst the animal print cushions on his beige couch as Yanni-Live at the Acropolis played on the flat screen television. Selebi had already been on fully paid long leave for 18 months and was awaiting trial. It was the only time, to my knowledge, that he had allowed a journalist into his home.
Somewhat deflated at having to spend so much time on the sidelines, the fire still burned deep inside the man who was once at the vanguard of the ANC’s struggle against apartheid. His lip quivered and his eyebrows furrowed as he spoke about what he believed to be a conspiracy against him by the now defunct Directorate of Special Operations, the Scorpions. His eyes became fierce and a snarl stretched across his face as I asked him whether he had ever taken money from his erstwhile friend, self-styled Mafioso Glenn Agliotti, and if he had a case to answer to. “I don’t! They know that I don’t! But let them have the courage to come to court and place whatever they say they have there outside in the open so that we can deal with it”, he said with bravado.
Selebi was similarly defiant when I asked him if his friend former President Thabo Mbeki ever protected him from prosecution as ex-National Director of Public Prosecutions Vusi Pikoli has always claimed. “It is untrue for anyone to suggest he was protecting me so that I can do crime. He has never done that and he wouldn’t do that,” Selebi assured me.
Over the more than 50 days during which evidence was led during Selebi’s corruption trial, he would spend the hour-long lunch break sitting on his own, eating an apple. Occasionally he would beckon me with a jerk of his head. I would listen as the “accused” would rant about the case against him. He would complain about Paul O’Sullivan’s involvement in the investigation and how Pikoli and his predecessor Bulelani Ngcuka had instigated his prosecution. Selebi was adamant that he was the victim of a political conspiracy to ensure the survival of the Scorpions – his defence was also structured around his argument that both Ngcuka and Pikoli had themselves been involved in corruption and were going on the offensive rather than be exposed by the SAPS under Selebi. He even implied that there would be tapes, which would reveal the political interference and the complicity of judges and senior elected officials. Selebi’s associates such as former head of the police’s crime intelligence unit Mulangi Mphego allegedly played a pivotal role in leaking the so-called spy tapes, which had saved President Jacob Zuma from corruption charges. Could these same tapes save the top cop too? For some unknown reason, the recordings never made an appearance in the trial.
These lunchtime rants were always imbued with arrogance. He would tell me he was “confident, very confident”, and would position his thumb and forefinger in the shape of a pistol and ask me, “Where is the smoking gun?”. There would be no smoking gun, rather, it would be the weight of the feathers, all of the evidence together, the inferences that would be drawn, that would ultimately be Selebi’s downfall.
It all began to fall apart for “the Commissioner”, as he was referred to by his legal team, when he defiantly insisted on giving evidence in his own defence. His lawyers tried their absolute best to talk him out of it. So too did his wife. Even his colleagues from the police service were called in to dissuade him. But Selebi wouldn’t listen to anyone. He alone took the decision to take the stand. We watched as the man, who was once deeply respected and highly regarded, imploded before us. He lied over and over again. He presented forged documents to the court. He claimed his wife had shredded receipts. He looked as though he had lost his mind.
It was then that I first began to wonder, what was this man suffering from? Could his health be failing him to such an extent that he was no longer fully cognitive? Or was he just deluded by hubris and devoid of shame?
A member of Selebi’s camp confirmed to me what I suspected. They had an idea that he was in poor health. I had heard rumblings that he may have cancer or some or other terminal disease, but that he had refused to admit this to his lawyers. “The old man doesn’t remember what he is saying or what is going on. He can’t remember what he had for dinner last night and we think there might be early onset Alzheimer’s”, the source told me. “He’s such a macho man, he was a flagship for our country and now that’s all gone. We’ve tried to get him to a doctor but he won’t go.”
This was a possible explanation for his incoherent statements from the witness box. I pondered this out loud with another colleague in the media gallery. “It is a sickness. It’s a sickness called arrogance”, said the reporter. A Scorpions investigator described it to me as “Kort Kombers Syndrome” (in English that’s Short Blanket Syndome) – if the blanket is too short you can cover the head not the feet or vice versa. In other words Selebi couldn’t hide all his lies all the time.
Selebi was found guilty by the South Gauteng High Court in July last year. His appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein was heard nearly 18 months later, in November this year. Over that time period, those who went to see the ex-Commissioner spoke about how he had lost a considerable amount of weight and how his health had significantly deteriorated. But each time his lawyers broached the subject with him, he refused to discuss it and would not speak to them for days on end. He would literally ignore them for questioning his wellness. His legal team would no doubt have pointed to his health as a mitigating factor in sentencing or in an appeal, but he stubbornly refused.
On Friday morning, Selebi welcomed his lawyers into his Waterkloof home and awaited the ruling from the SCA. They watched the broadcast live on television, probably from the same couch where I had sat when I had interviewed him and on the same flat screen on which Yanni was singing from the Acropolis. As Judge Kenneth Mthiyane dismissed his appeal, Selebi collapsed. An ambulance came and the 61-year-old was rushed to hospital. At first there were reports that he complained of chest pains, then suggestions he may have suffered a stroke. Those close to him say he has been undergoing dialysis for some time now and that his illness is the result of his diabetes. The shocking news from the SCA simply exacerbated his condition. Some even say he is in dire need of a kidney transplant. They say he is not participating in conversations about his imminent incarceration and that he is just not talking. He is apparently completely unaware that he is going to jail.
The references to Schabir Shaik are unavoidable. Selebi would want to do whatever possible to avoid spending 15 years at “Sun City”, Joburg’s correctional facility. He could quite conveniently have faked a stroke or, as some have suggested, contracted the “Shaiks”, a variation of a pre-prepared, undiagnosed, undefined terminal illness.
In its ruling, the SCA questioned the truthfulness of the man, casting a pall over any semblance of integrity he may still have had:
“The mendacity of the appellant went directly to the essence of vital aspects of the case against him and greatly reduced the risk of accepting the evidence against him. The palpable dishonesty apparent from the appellant’s testimony leaves one aghast. It reveals, without any doubt, a guilty state of mind.”
When I phoned Selebi a month ago, the day before his appeal was argued in Bloemfontein, he told me he was ‘feeling strong’. There was no mention of a potentially terminal illness or perhaps this was just a part of his ‘strong man’ facade.
Can we believe a dishonest man, who misled a court and an entire nation, when he tells us he is mortally ill and should not go to jail? Or should we grant him the benefit of the doubt, on the track record of a man who was once the leader of the ANC Youth League, a long time member of the ANC NEC and our ambassador to the United Nations?
Whatever the truth, Selebi has not prepared himself for what lies ahead. While he may be in a state of ill health, he is also in a state of denial. He is suffering from audacious hubris. The man, who sacrificed so much of his life for the country’s struggle, simply never thought it would come to this. He could never comprehend that he, the man who was once the most powerful police officer in the world, would be found guilty of corruption. He has seen so many of his comrades walk away from similar charges, saved by presidential pardons or political interference. Why should he take the fall when so many others have not? But in Selebi’s case there is simply no political will to save him.
Selebi is due to hand himself over at a correctional services facility on Monday morning. But his lawyers say there is not yet a warrant signed for his incarceration and their client is simply too ill to go to jail. While he convalesces in hospital, they will go to the South Gauteng High Court and apply for him to spend another seven days as a free man. Prison officials say they won’t be pulling Selebi out of his hospital bed and he’ll have to report to them. It is unclear how long he can avoid prison for, but there is now the very real possibility that his legal team will go straight for a medical parole without the corrupt, dishonest police chief having spent a day behind bars. Will Selebi ultimately be saved by a terminal illness or just by his insufferable arrogance? DM
Mandy Wiener is an Eyewitness News reporter and the author of Killing Kebble – An Underworld Exposed
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall