Something rotten

2008-01-16 00:00

Yesterday’s Witness covered topics which, although they seemed unrelated at first sight, yet could, on closer examination, be seen to be linked — the common threads being corruption in high places and the alleged misconduct of Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi.

First, two readers drew attention to the chaotic baggage handling and security at O.R. Tambo Airport, now one of the least luggage-safe airports in the world. Because of a blend of incompetence (ill-maintained equipment, hopelessly inefficient handling) and systematic dishonesty (the rifling of luggage and wholesale theft of bags), travel into and out of South Africa has become a nightmare. The publication of the readers’ letters coincided with yesterday’s radio interview with Paul O’Sullivan, former aviation security chief executive at the airport. In 2002 and again in 2005 O’Sullivan, concerned that the then developing luggage chaos was the fault of a corrupt and incompetent contractor, tried to have that contractor removed and replaced with one more able and trustworthy. His efforts were allegedly blocked or interfered with by Selebi. It’s alleged, too, that Selebi was protecting not only the contractor, but persons in high places who were benefiting in one way or another from the contract.

Second comes the report that charges — of corruption and defeating the ends of justice —against Gerrie Nel, head of the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO, otherwise known as the Scorpions) in Gauteng, have been withdrawn. Police arrested him last Tuesday and it is impossible not to conclude that the arrest was related to the Scorpions’ investigation of Selebi, who was later charged and suspended from office. The attempt by police to remove Nel — and, presumably, to prevent the Scorpions from uncovering further incriminating evidence — falls into line with a number of other unprocedural or strange developments. These include the unexplained suspension of former National Prosecutions Authority (NPA) head Vusi Pikoli, at the time, significantly, when the possibility of charges against Selebi were first mooted. And it’s curious that the deliberations of the Ginwala Commission, tasked with investigating the Pikoli matter, have been so extraordinarily slow.

Since the delay has, in part, been caused by government’s failure to provide the commission with its submission, this looks very much like deliberate government foot-dragging. Although it is yet to be proven, it seems that South Africans are beginning to glimpse something of an extensive web of deceit involving elements in the police and criminals, both in the government and outside it, with various greedy and dishonest individuals watching one another’s backs and looking after their own interests by liberally disbursing bribes and protection money whenever necessary.

How may this meshwork be unravelled? The most immediate answer is that Selebi’s activities must be thoroughly and publicly investigated and that when the evidence is complete he must be brought to trial. If he is found guilty, he must be punished with the utmost severity. No one is above the law and corruption in the upper echelons of the police force brings the SAPS into disrepute and is utterly unacceptable. In the longer term, it is essential that the Scorpions retain their independence and that they not be absorbed into the SAPS. So far they have done an outstanding job of sniffing out and acting against corruption and anything that would dilute or nullify their efforts should be resisted at all costs.

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