The tragedy that became Selebi’s life

Jackie Selebi

And so a final chapter closes on Jackie Selebi as he passes on to join his African ancestors.

And what a pity that a life lived in service of the people ends with the epitaph of a corrupt cop who went down in shame because of Italian shoes and a few thousand rand.

A pity because Jackie (and I will call him that) was much more than this.

I first met him in the trenches of the struggle in the late 1970s at a seminar at St Peter’s Seminary in Hammanskraal, outside Pretoria.

All the big political ideas had been debated during the day, and we were sitting down and getting to know each other. He was with his friend Kanakana Madzena.

The talk invariably turned to detentions and torture, and Jackie was regaling us with his experiences.

“Those boers stripped me naked and tied me up. They said to me: ‘You Saso guys always say we the people, we the students, we, we, we. Who are the “we”?’ As I tried to answer saying “we”, they hit me and asked who are the we?

“They beat me up some more, and asked me what my name was. At that time, black consciousness was still full in my head and I told them Sello. They slapped me hard so many times, each time asking me who I am. Eventually, I said Jackie, meekly, and they roared with laughter.

“I felt really bad, and they made me walk up and down naked, while they sat there fully dressed. It hits you psychologically, and they said as I walked I should say, ‘Ek is ’n kaffir, ek kan niks doen nie’. You can see I am there, I have a big body, so doing all this ‘Ek is ’n kaffir’ was not amusing at all.”

There was roaring laughter all round, not laughing at Jackie, but because virtually all of the people there could recall their own tortures and the accompanying degradation of one’s humanity.

Laughter was a way to survive. We laughed at the pain and that allowed us to live another sane day.

I remember someone that night suggesting to Jackie that he should lose weight. In typical Jackie style, the retort was quick: “Just because there are all these botsotso jeans, you think I should break down my body that has taken me so many years to build. You must be crazy.”

He later left the country with Madzena and become a senior member of the ANC in exile.

When he came back, we had many occasions to meet, as he headed the social department and was in charge of the returning exiles and their resocialisation into their families, communities and the nation.

And it seems it is here that he met Glenn Agliotti, the man whose association would eventually bring him down.

He became director-general of foreign affairs, ambassador to the UN and led a successful campaign against landmines, and later became national police commissioner, but at the heart of Jackie’s work was a total commitment to serving South Africa.

When I lost my son tragically, he was at hand, both as a friend and as commissioner, to ensure I survived what was a gruelling trauma. Still very jocular and full of swagger, murmurs started about unbecoming behaviour, which he denied to the end.

And it was the strength of his character that saw many people, including then president Thabo Mbeki, give him the benefit of the doubt.

The conviction was traumatic for many of us, for in that moment, everything that Jackie had represented and stood for came collapsing down.

He became, as one media outlet described him when it announced his death on Friday, “corruption-convicted” Selebi.

And that for me is the tragedy of the Selebi story and life: that he has been reduced to that, and almost only that.

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