South Africa

Requiem for a tragic antihero, Jackie Selebi

By Ranjeni Munusamy 25 July 2012

South Africa’s former police chief and now convicted felon Jackie Selebi died long before a medical parole advisory board declared that he was “in the final phases of end-stage renal disease”. From a charismatic political heavyweight, South Africa’s representative to the UN and former head of Interpol, Selebi is now a shadow of the towering figure he once was. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Jackie Selebi and Schabir Shaik have much in common – other than their obvious inglorious recent history. Apart from their conviction on corruption charges, 15-year imprisonment and release on medical parole, Selebi and Shaik are the architects of their own ignominy. 

Both these highly politically connected individuals had an inflated sense of their own self-importance. Both refused to accept that they had committed crimes and therefore went through their long-running trials in denial that the possibility existed that they would end up in prison. And both sank their cases with their own testimony in court. 

Despite having top legal brains on their defence teams, their conceit and misguided sense that they would be showstoppers in the witness box resulted in the exposure of their flawed characters and disconnect from reality. 

Both defence legal teams were at a loss once their clients started testifying, and with each passing minute on the stand, they got closer and closer to their jail cells. 

Their corruption cases had an inordinate impact on two other people – both presidents, both their respective friends. Jacob Zuma was fired as deputy president and charged with corruption after Shaik’s conviction, Thabo Mbeki will forever carry the burden of having used his office to shield Selebi from prosecution. 

Selebi and Shaik are both highly complex individuals whose braggart personalities made them easy to dislike but whose fall from grace made them tragic, pitiful characters in South Africa’s political theatre. There was some element of public glee at the imprisonment, and some seemed to wish that they were going to prison for punishment, not as punishment. 

They were once high-flying characters at the top of their game – Shaik was a business tycoon and Selebi was South Africa’s permanent representative to the United Nations, later director general of foreign affairs and then national police commissioner. 

It is not known whether the two ever met, but their disgrace has now bound them together in a coincidence of circumstance and terminal shame. 

Shaik’s release on medical parole in March 2009 after serving two years and four months of his 15-year prison term caused howls of outrage over perceived preferential treatment amid scepticism that he was “in the final stages of terminal illness”. 

But the farce was exposed by Shaik himself when he started making public appearances around Durban, particularly on the golf course. If there was indeed leniency shown to him due to his political connections, he betrayed his liberators by not being able to conceal his flamboyant lifestyle. 

Shaik’s controversial release on medical parole and subsequent bad behaviour undermined the parole system and revealed the inconsistencies that allow the well heeled and politically connected to exploit loopholes to secure their release. He is now the subject of public ridicule because of his “miraculous recovery” from the final stages of terminal illness. 

So when Selebi was released on medical parole last week, he had to carry Shaik’s baggage and share the scorn, irrespective of his own medical condition. During the end stages of his trial and the appeal processes, it became obvious that Selebi was sick. However, other than his close family members, details of his medical condition were a closely guarded secret.

It was only when he collapsed at his Waterkloof home after the judgment of the Supreme Court of Appeal denied his appeal in December last year that even his legal team became privy to the serious nature of his illness. The appeal outcome meant he had to begin his 15-year jail sentence within 48 hours. 

He was treated at the Jakaranda Hospital in Pretoria before starting his jail term at the Pretoria Central prison. But due to the combination of renal disease and diabetes, he needed to continue with dialysis which he had been quietly undergoing before his imprisonment. This resulted in the 62-year-old Selebi spending much of the past seven months at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, where he reportedly underwent dialysis up to three times a day.

Correctional services minister S’bu Ndebele announced on Friday that an 11-member medical parole advisory board met in June and recommended the release of six of 12 prisoners who had applied for medical parole. Selebi was one of them, released just 229 days into his 15-year sentence. 

Despite the public cynicism around another politically connected person receiving medical parole so soon into his sentence, there is general acceptance that Selebi is genuinely sick. 

According to the chairman of the medical parole advisory board, Victor Ramathesele, Selebi suffers from end-stage renal disease as a complication of diabetes mellitus “and many other complications”.

“He is receiving peritoneal dialysis on a constant basis, almost three times a day, and based on that and regulations in the act, he more than qualifies to be recommended for medical parole,” he said.

Selebi did not qualify for a kidney transplant because there was “no chance that he will be able to live a normal, productive life if he received a new kidney”, an official at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital told the Sunday Independent. 

According to people who have seen Selebi since his incarceration, he has learnt to administer his own treatment through valves now permanently in his abdomen. Always a proud figure, he apparently tries to be self-sufficient. The Times reported this week that Selebi took daily walks to “stretch his legs” while in hospital and quoted a hospital staff member as saying that he climbed off his bed into a wheelchair unassisted when he was released on Saturday. 

Though Selebi appears to be learning to deal with his infirmed physical state, it is his state of mind that would be of most concern to his friends and family. When he was convicted, the sense of defeat began to take hold. Even then he did not want his illness exposed.  

In January, two men who styled themselves as “the friends of Jackie Selebi” applied for Selebi’s release on medical parole. The two said in their application that prison was no place for a terminally ill elderly man. But Selebi apparently did not approve of the application and made it known that he had not instructed his medical team to apply for medical parole. The application was in any event unprocedural. 

It was Selebi’s wife, Anne, a qualified nurse, who took the initiative to apply for his release on medical grounds and is now in charge of his care under strict parole conditions. This includes two hours’ free time during the week and six hours at weekends. 

But Selebi is unlikely to flaunt himself in public the way Shaik did. Unlike Shaik, who believes that a presidential pardon will allow him to live a normal life again, Selebi is trapped in his own shame. 

He is shocked at how his distinguished life turned out and how he ended up behind bars. Every sordid detail of his life is public, including his mountain of financial problems. While he once worked and cavorted with the famous and influential, his circle of friends would now be very small. 

Selebi was probably aware that he would not have had the rolling political campaign like Zuma had when he was charged, but he probably expected some level of political support from his organisation, the ANC. None was forthcoming, not publicly anyway. That must have been soul destroying.  

However, while in hospital, he apparently did receive visits from his friends and some figures in the ANC. But these were low key and infrequent, not only because people were uncomfortable seeing him in such a condition but also because his visiting times were restricted and friends wanted to allow Anne maximum time with him.  

If the medical parole advisory board is to be believed, they sent Selebi home to die in peace. There is probably a prevailing sentiment behind the decision that he has been punished enough. If there was anything the prosecution and imprisonment of Selebi achieved, it was to bring home the full impact of his actions, particularly his wayward relationship with a mobster. 

He knows where he went wrong and is forever in the hell of his own humiliation as a consequence. There is nothing more the criminal justice system or the people of South Africa can – or should – do to punish Jackie Selebi. DM

Photo: Jackie Selebi, the former head of South Africa’s police force, leaves after his appearance at Johannesburg High Court August 2, 2010. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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