South Africa

The paradox, agony and death of a comrade’s comrade, Jackie Selebi

By Ranjeni Munusamy 26 January 2015

The former National Police Commissioner died on Friday, which means all the weekend newspapers had prominent coverage of his death and chequered legacy, including his spectacular fall from grace. It was a great irony for someone who resented the media hounding him, grumbling to his comrades that journalists thought he was their “weekend special” – channelling the Brenda Fassie hit song. Selebi’s public image was that of a pompous loudmouth whose bad behaviour caught up with him. To his friends and comrades, he was witty and charismatic, with his heart in the ANC of old and yearning for redemption. His battles kept many of them ensnared in feuds that long ceased to make sense. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

At the funeral of former Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete in May 2002, then-National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi led an official salute of police officers. Selebi snapped his right hand from his temple to his side in a smart movement and turned to march off. Unfortunately he turned the wrong way, in the opposite direction to the other officers. A smile played on his lips and he quickly corrected his movement.

Selebi was never quite suited to the position of national police commissioner, and in years to come, his mistakes compromised the senior management of the police service.

When Selebi was appointed, he looked rather odd in the uniform, barrel-shaped and comical – not that the two people who succeeded him gave it any more gravitas. Former president Thabo Mbeki never quite explained why he chose Selebi to be the national commissioner, although it was obvious he needed someone in that position whom he could trust unconditionally. Selebi was a respected figure in the ANC and his loyalty was absolute. Perhaps if Mbeki had selected a person who had been more discerning, both he and Selebi might have completed their terms in office with their legacies intact.

It was not immediately obvious that Selebi was wrong for the job. He had excelled in his former positions as Ambassador to the United Nations and director-general of foreign affairs. The combination of him and Tshwete lit up the police portfolio, with them actively participating in police operations and their colourful personalities entertaining the media. They wanted to show ordinary cops that they cared for them, and for a while morale in the police was on the up. Selebi developed a strategic plan that initially looked sound but proved later to be disastrous, particularly the dismantling of specialised units.  

But there were also political mistakes and a personal relationship that would cost him his career and freedom, and lead to the fall of all those who worked under him.

It began with a messy saga, to which both Tshwete and Selebi lent their names. They gave credence to a wild conspiracy theory that there was a plot in the ANC to overthrow Mbeki. Mbeki believed the story that Cyril Ramaphosa, Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale were trying to unseat him, therefore his loyal servants Tshwete and Selebi had to put out the allegation in public and make it stand. It was eventually shown to be nonsense, but the episode sparked what would later become a full-blown war in the ANC. There was an unnamed person in the plot allegation, and that person would later issue a statement claiming he had no designs whatsoever on the presidency.

That person was Jacob Zuma.

The Mbeki-Zuma battle that ensued caused turmoil in the state security agencies, which embroiled the senior leaders in the police, intelligence agencies, military and National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). All the heads of these institutions were ANC members and inadvertently took sides. In this long-running political feud, Zuma was investigated for corruption, fired as deputy president, charged with corruption and fraud, then rape, and then made a spectacular comeback to become ANC president.

Parallel to the Mbeki-Zuma battle was a face-off between the police and what was then the Scorpions, under the NPA. In the midst of this turf war, allegations arose that Selebi was a bent cop, in the pocket of a shady underworld figure, Glenn Agliotti. Selebi was convinced that the president was on his side and that Mbeki would intervene to put then-NPA head Bulelani Ngcuka and the Scorpions in their place. From 2003, Selebi was telling his underlings that Mbeki would be disbanding the Scorpions.

Mbeki did not disband them, and the battles continued to rage after Ngcuka left and Vusi Pikoli was appointed in his place, with the constant threat of armed confrontations between the police and the Scorpions.

It was apparent to all the world that Selebi had a case to answer for his relationship with Agliotti, but only he and those close to him were blind to the wrongness of his actions. Even Mbeki wanted to believe his comrade and friend was not on the take, saying faithfully in November 2006: “Trust me, be assured, I will take action if anything has been done [that is] wrong.”

As a result of this trust Mbeki had in Selebi, he suspended Pikoli for trying to arrest the national commissioner. Selebi was becoming angrier at the intensity of the investigation against him and dispatched his subordinates in the police to seek an “equaliser” – something that would show the Scorpions to be equally corrupt. As a result, prosecutor Gerrie Nel, who would later humiliate and successfully prosecute Selebi in court, was arrested for corruption and defeating the ends of justice. The charges were withdrawn a few days later.

Although the very same Scorpions were pursuing Zuma, Selebi and Zuma were not exactly on the same side. Zuma was distrustful of Selebi and all those close to him, believing they were all loyal to Mbeki. After Zuma became ANC president, the purge began – and continues even today, with the unrelenting pursuit of Hawks head Anwa Dramat. Dramat, a former Umkhonto we Sizwe operative who was sentenced to 12 years on Robben Island and was tortured by the notorious security branch interrogator Jeffrey Benzien, was last week accused in a formal ANC media statement of “reporting and accounting” to Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille.  

The combination of his corruption trial, the hounding out of his comrades and subordinates and his illness all disorientated Selebi. Mbeki was long gone and could do nothing for him. His friend and benefactor Agliotti was a state witness against him. He believed that the ANC would stand by him; it didn’t. It was a source of great bitterness that while Zuma enjoyed immense support from sections of the ANC and the alliance partners during his corruption and rape trials, Selebi had none.

It was also a source of great resentment that many people in the ANC were getting away with far more serious crimes and corrupt activities. They could do so because they remained in the politically powerful and connected set. Selebi and those who had been close to him did not have such protection. In 20 years of ANC rule, Selebi is the most senior figure of the movement to be convicted and serve time for corruption.

It ate him inside, just like the failure of his kidneys was doing physically.

Privately, his comrades stood by him, visiting and counselling him; publicly he was an increasingly isolated figure. People were afraid to be associated with him because they feared the consequences so many already suffered. The media focus on Selebi during his trial, his conviction and his failed appeal at the Supreme Court of Appeals also kept people away.

The one thing Selebi thrived on was political discussions and analysing what was going on in the movement. While he was in the prison hospital and later on medical parole, visits from people with whom he could have these discussions were few and far between. In the last few months of his life, he kept up these discussions when he could. Sometimes he slipped into a delusional space where he still believed he had influence and could assist the ANC. He would tell people who visited him to intervene in this or that matter; they listened and did nothing.

From the time he was charged up to the point where he lost his appeal, Selebi did not believe he would ever be imprisoned. He believed, when he took the witness stand in his own defence, that he would embarrass the prosecution and the case against him would collapse. None of the people close to him tried to convince him otherwise. Maybe they were desperate to believe him; maybe they did not have the heart to tell him how bad things looked.

This week, the formidable life and times of Jackie Selebi will be celebrated by his family, colleagues, friends and comrades. They will try to stitch together his tattered legacy and try to blot away the humiliation and disgrace of the last years of his life.

Selebi’s agony is finally over. The propensity in the ANC to eat and hurt itself is not. DM

Photo: Jackie Selebi, the former head of South Africa’s police force, looks on during his sentencing at a South African court in Johannesburg August 3, 2010. Reuters/Werner Beukes/Pool

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