Heartbreaking story of Selebi

A FEW years ago I asked Jackie Selebi, then police commissioner, how he planned to deal with corruption in the police force.

Our discussion took place on the sidelines of an Interpol meeting in Cape Town, convened to cobble together a global anti-terrorism strategy.

At the time US President George W Bush had compelled all nations to join his "war on terror".

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, world police chiefs were tasked with drafting anti-terror action manuals. Selebi was firmly at the helm of Interpol.

He had secured an influential position as the head of the international anti-crime unit - a body whose confidence in him appeared resolute even when evidence about his misdemeanours would later warrant grave suspicion.

As head of the police service he enjoyed absolute loyalty from his subordinates. Allegations of corruption against him had not yet surfaced. Nor could anyone have imagined them. Not as a figment of the imagination. Not as a joke.

He was, to borrow a phrase from Luthuli House, a cop in good standing. This made it easy for President Thabo Mbeki's administration to back his ascendency to Interpol.

Responding to my question about police corruption, Selebi quibbled along these lines: "The problem with you journalists is that you like talking about corruption but you don't consider it a bribe to buy your source Dom Perignon to get a story."

It was a lighter moment in our conversation. Unyielding to his clever attempt to ward off the question, I insisted along the lines: "But surely you should be doing something about it?" To which he confirmed that he was in fact tackling the problem head-on.

On reflection one could say Selebi appeared to have a high sense of what constituted impropriety.

This notwithstanding the fact that his remarks pretended to lack the appreciation of friendships and normal socialisation networks that come with a cup of coffee or an expensive glass of Dom Perignon.

His was of broader principle, which one imagined guided his professional conduct. And I got the gist.

Judging by his record in the struggle against apartheid and his participation in international campaigns for human rights, he really meant well.

To top it, he cut his political activism in the Black Consciousness Movement, which preached Black pride.

He was also a renowned diplomat, a former proud cadre who planned to prove wrong those who opposed his appointment on account of a lack of experience.

Selebi's imprisonment this week on charges related to defeating the ends of justice - a crime he committed while he was police chief - triggers unsettling questions about his commitment to the values he embodied and articulated during the struggle and post 1994.

It also creates the impression of an uneasy relationship between the constitutional settlement and its architects, who include Selebi.

The criminal justice system that Selebi is guilty of corrupting is one for which he and his comrades fought. Some even lost their lives for the cause. Yet very little can be said about some of the people who nailed him.

Some were foreign spies who came to South Africa to enjoy the fruits of democracy, peace, human rights and the rule of law, all of which were realised thanks to the efforts of Selebi and his comrades.

Yet, they judged Selebi against the principles he spent most of his life fighting to achieve. In a way, Selebi stripped himself naked in front of those he, in the struggle days, would have described as "enemies".

But thanks to the new South Africa that Selebi helped establish, they were given the privilege to be his equal in terms of the law. But it is Selebi himself who sought to undermine the same principles he fought for.

Instead of being a pioneer of the rule of law, he fought hard to vanquish it. Instead of being true to his oath of his duty, he worked to undermine it.

This he did in alliance with dodgy characters who, in the language of his liberation struggle, would have been "enemies".

How could Selebi collaborate with the "enemy", as it were, to undermine the rule of law he helped establish? This is a question of broader significance not only to the comrades in the ruling party, but also for the African state post-independence.

This is not to say it is only ANC comrades who are always found on the wrong side of the law. It is about highlighting the ANC's historic mission which includes ridding the state and society of corruption entrenched by apartheid.

Many former liberation movement leaders on the continent either collaborated with "enemies" to destroy their countries or adopted enemy tactics to achieve same. Some have gone to the extent of exploiting the judicial systems of their countries as a means of personal enrichment.

This partly explains Africa's under-development caused by weak governance.

Selebi represents the consequences of straying from the principles that informed the liberation struggle. Many others have fallen into the same trap of quick-fix material accumulation.

These include those who speak loud against what is now famously described as crass materialism. Others, like Selebi, use the state to procure unseemly benefits for themselves.

They show utter lack of understanding and sheer ignorance of their historical duty. And they do so with a sense of entitlement, soliciting backing by fellow comrades, who then concoct conspiracy theories to explain away misdemeanours, as was the case with Tony Yengeni and others.

Some use their political muscle not to strengthen the constitutional system they fought for, but to weaken it by cheating their way out.

Yet there is a bigger threat by Selebi and those like him: they, due to the high positions they command, could easily collapse the democratic edifice from within - and without much effort.

The charges of which Selebi was convicted go to the heart of the sovereignty of the state.

He was a South African version of Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington) in the movie American Gangster.

One wonders whether there had been any action taken against those Selebi used as his pawns in the service of drug lord Glenn Agliotti to whom he was beholden.

The security of the Republic rested on him: he had sweeping powers to arrest and detain any suspect within the borders of the Republic.

He was in charge of the VIP unit that looks after the security of all leaders of state and eminent visitors. He was in charge of the security of our borders. He had a direct line to the president.

No one could afford not to give him an ear.

All citizens looked up to him for security. The thousands of poorly paid cops - the corrupt and the upright looked up to him. But more than that, he is a father and a husband.

Yet, in the mix, there were the parasites who connived with him to denude him of all the principles he imbibed in the struggle.

They are the whores whose duty it was to convert the country into the Republic of Aburiria, the most corrupt state in Ngugi wa Thiongo's Wizard of the Crow.

He was charmed by their possessions. And they were seduced by his power.

He mixed oil and water and still hoped for a harmonious outcome.

His close association with Mbeki almost got him off the hook. In its wake, the Selebi investigation and marathon trial left many - institutions and individuals - wounded. It triggered the firing of Vusi Pikoli, the prosecution chief, a process that entangled three presidents: Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma.

Parliament, the lamest of institutions, was hoodwinked in attesting to the irrelevant opinion that Pikoli had no regard for state security matters.

The National Prosecution Authority was exposed to political machinations. It is far from recovering. In a brazen unleashing of power, judges and magistrates were visited at night in a bid to thwart a warrant of arrest for Selebi.

A prosecutor in the Selebi trial was arrested by police under Selebi's leadership. All this could have been avoided had Selebi stuck to his mission.

Now, instead of reflecting on the years he spent in the liberation movement and the role he played in crafting the new order, and perhaps drafting a beautiful memoir about many unknown stories about our history, he has gone to prison.

Come to think of it, it is a heartbreaking story.

lThe original version of the article first appeared in the Sunday Independent

Mpumelelo Mkhabela is Editor of Sowetan