Jackie Selebi: A life less ordinary

2015-01-25 15:00

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The first time I met Jackie Selebi was in the early 1990s as a reporter covering a student rally at Wits University.

Here was this newly returning exile with a powerful voice, imposing presence and a cutting intellect. The audience soaked up every word as he described the concept of dual power, the situation where a government and a revolutionary movement possess similar levels of authority and, in essence, run two parallel states.

He argued that the apartheid government and the ANC were at that point and the struggle had to be intensified to tilt the balance in favour of the ANC. It was an incisive analysis from a brilliant mind.

The last time I met Jackie Selebi was under very different circumstances. The Sunday Times, which I was editing at the time, had run a bold front-page story detailing his involvement with now convicted drug dealer Glenn Agliotti and other underworld figures. We sat in his study and he tried, very unconvincingly, to explain why we were wrong about him.

It’s a mystery why he was drawn to Agliotti. He had met him in 1992 when he was in charge of the repatriation of ANC exiles and the opportunistic businessman was giving support to the project. When Selebi joined the police, Agliotti became a trusted underworld source and later, his underworld accomplice.

While Agliotti today walks the streets and dines in fine establishments, Selebi died a disgraced cop shunned by even long-time comrades.

His scandalous fall from grace is unfortunately the memory most now have of the man who lived a remarkable life. Few will remember the SA Student Organisation (Saso) firebrand who, with the Steve Bikos and the Onkgopotse Tiros, was a thorn in the side of the apartheid regime in the late 60s and 70s.

Few will remember Selebi the schoolteacher who fought with students during the 1976 uprisings, the activist who revived the ANC’s youth structures in exile and the man to whom fell the thankless task of reintegrating returning exiles into South African society.

The diplomat who drove the Ottawa Treaty that banned murderous landmines after a speedy three-week negotiation and the director-general who created democratic South Africa’s foreign service is long forgotten.

Veteran diplomat and long-time friend Welile Nhlapo was in the Saso trenches with Selebi and worked with him in the ANC’s exile structures, in the repatriation process and in government.

He recalls an innovative Selebi who knew how to drive processes and credits his innovative instincts for the record time in which the Ottawa Treaty was signed, and his tough but crafty negotiating style for the Lusaka Accord which brought about the end of the 1990s civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He holds up as one of his greatest achievements the transformation of an apartheid-era slush fund meant to buy off African governments into the African Renaissance and International Cooperation Fund, which is the country’s primary foreign aid tool.

When newly minted President Thabo Mbeki decided to move Selebi to the police, the decision was met with huge disappointment from the diplomatic community, where he was highly respected, and outrage from opposition parties, who felt the appointment of an ANC loyalist would lead to the politicisation of the force.

In a way they were right, as Selebi enthusiastically worked alongside late minister Steve Tshwete in falsifying a plot against Mbeki by ANC heavyweights Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa. This was the first sign of the security agencies being used to fight political battles, a practice that has now reached endemic levels.

As odd as it was for a civilian to head the police, Selebi became very popular with rank-and-file cops. He loved to go on ground operations and pop into police stations unannounced. He also took up the personal cases of junior policemen who often called him on his personal cellphone to vent their frustrations.

In one year he even got his senior management to forgo a pay rise to boost the increases of junior officers

“At heart he was always a teacher so he was close to young people,” says former deputy commissioner Tim Williams, who acted in the top job when Selebi was suspended.

Williams says Selebi was “passionate about everything he did”, citing his 20-hour working days during the Boeremag investigation as an

example. His passion, he says, led him to be “impatient with people who didn’t do their jobs”.

The national management forums, where police chiefs presented plans and updates, were known as the “Selebi trials” because of the grilling he gave his senior team. He apparently banned the phrase “We are addressing the issue” from meetings and wanted concrete progress reports.

Nhlapo recalls a mischievous Selebi who liked taking the mickey out of people, many of whom did not appreciate it.

There was also a very volatile side to him, which led to the police headquarters staff having a “mood barometer” which would determine when and how they should approach him on any particular day.

Nhlapo witnessed a lot of this in the decades he knew him. The most memorable being an outburst against a traffic cop who wanted to ticket the driver in which Selebi was a front-seat passenger on the way to watch his beloved Orlando Pirates because the

future top cop was not wearing a seat belt.

“Hey wena sdudla, phuma emotweni (Hey fatty, get out of the car)”, the traffic cop had allegedly said. An incensed Selebi got out of the car and harangued the cop about how he thought someone of his large frame was meant to fit into a seat belt. The intimidated cop froze and let them go.

Selebi was, in essence, a political animal. Senior parliamentarian Lulu Johnson, a former youth leader, credits Selebi’s wisdom for the successful relaunch of the ANC Youth League in the early 1990s. The relaunch conference in the old KwaNdebele homeland nearly collapsed because some senior leaders objected to the nomination of Peter Mokaba, who was facing allegations of having spied for the apartheid government at the time. Selebi then led a mediation effort in which he convinced the warring parties to “put the movement first”.

He also remembers Selebi leading an intervention in which he, Johnson and ANC veteran Eddie Funde tried to get the youth league to tone down their anti-Mbeki insults in the run-up to the Polokwane ­conference.

So what went wrong with the man who should have died a hero and would have been deserving of an official funeral?

Theories range from his love of good things to being too trusting of an Agliotti who kept luring him deeper into his web.

“He made mistakes about his relationship with Agliotti. He believed he could deliver on intelligence on underground syndicates,” says ­Nhlapo.

Williams, who is still shocked that the hard taskmaster who loved policing turned out to be in cahoots with a criminal, says there was “a lapse in his vigilance”. “If could apologise for him I would,” he says.

His former spokesperson Selby Bokaba, who maintained a close relationship with Selebi till the end, says “he accepted his fate and made peace with how his career ended and how the world viewed him”.

For Johnson the saddest thing is that the memory of legacy will be that of a bad cop.

“It is unfortunate that despite all the good things you have done, the mistakes you have made will dominate,” he says.

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