Selebi on the side of the angels

2009-10-10 00:00

ONE of South Africa’s most important criminal trials ever is unfolding in Johannesburg. Regardless of the eventual verdict, its ramifications are set to change the criminal justice system locally and bring a blush to some leading figures in international policing. Former National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi is charged with corruption and defeating the ends of justice. The case, however, reaches beyond the charge sheet into a murky world of feuding African National Congress factions and the systematic subversion of policing by crime syndicates.

It has already cost Selebi, who used to be powerful within the ANC, his career. A new commissioner, connected to the ascendant Zulu wing of the ANC, is firmly in place, whereas the man who appointed Selebi and protected him fiercely, former president Thabo Mbeki, is yesterday’s man.

The rumours and allegations of corruption against Selebi that were rife for years, would in most democracies have resulted in the swift sidelining of the national police commissioner, if only not to impede a police investigation. Instead, Mbeki tried every jinx and dive imaginable to prevent the matter coming to trial, including firing the head of the national prosecuting body.

In response to a string of newspaper exposés, a delegation of religious leaders met Mbeki in 2006 to ask for a judicial commission. Mbeki, hand on heart, asked them instead to have faith in his judgement and, naïvely but predictably, they agreed to stand back.

Alas for Mbeki, however, divine intervention remained lacking and the drip-torture of reports about Selebi’s seedy connections continued, despite his threatening defamation suits. It didn’t help when Selebi faced down, with characteristic arrogance, revelations that a known mobster was paying for his flashy suits and his children’s medical bills.

Nothing would induce him to end his entirely innocent friendship with the man, Selebi proclaimed. The issue was “finish en klaar”, as he put it at the time.

This week, Glen Agliotti, that same mobster  — since convicted of drug dealing — claimed in court that Selebi was in his pocket from as far back as 1999, at a cost of around a million rand in cash bribes. Among the benefits was that the South African Police Service (SAPS) turned a blind eye to his drug dealing and Selebi showed Agliotti a British police intelligence report on his movements.

Oddly, at various times, Scotland Yard and Interpol, the international police organisation of which Selebi was president, issued statements pre-emptively declaring Selebi innocent of any criminal wrongdoing and expressing support. While the similarly couched statements of exculpation from SAPS’s nine regional directors might be expected, this international mobilisation of support for a beleaguered police chief was highly unusual.

Police forces are constituted to assemble evidence of guilt, not to pronounce on innocence. Nor was it within the legal ambit of either the British police or Interpol to have investigated Selebi in any way, making their “findings” meaningless.

If Selebi is found guilty, some police executives in Europe will be left looking extremely foolish.

While blind faith is the sine qua non of the posse of padres petitioning Mbeki, one expects some robust cynicism from the police.

Understandably, there was a reluctance to contemplate malfeasance of the world’s top cop, the first president of Interpol in 50 years who was not a Westerner and in his home country was a political appointment, not a career policeman.

Interpol hasn’t faced such embarrassment since 1938, when it infamously allowed itself to be hijacked for seven years by the Nazis, electing the thug Otto Steinhausl as president, to be followed by Gestapo murderer and torturer Reinhard Heydrich.

By those standards, even a convicted Selebi is an angel.

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