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Our small part in Selebi’s downfall

By Stefaans Brümmer

I take no pleasure in seeing a man go down, stripped of his dignity, exposed for his lies. That sense is more acute in the case of Jackie Selebi, convicted of corruption on Friday. For Selebi’s story is in many ways a parable of our democracy: it is a story of struggle, of hope, promise and new beginnings, but also one of compromise with the worst of the past and of dreams betrayed.

I don’t know whether Selebi, when he earned his first conviction as a relative youngster — of malicious damage to property around the time of the 1976 Soweto uprising — was a principled fighter against apartheid or just a hustler swept up in the spirit of his times. What I do know is that he went on to pay his dues in the exiled movement and that post-democracy he is said to have played an invaluable part in getting the department of foreign affairs, which he eventually headed, back onto even keel.

What the world now knows is that between 2000 and 2008, critical years as organised crime consolidated its penetration of the South African polity, Selebi as police chief was no more than a hustler, supping with some of the very people he was supposed to combat. For some suits, shoes and small change he betrayed the struggle for the success of our democracy.

And so my tears for the man and for our country are tempered by the realisation that what had to be done has been done to get the man removed from his post and for justice to be served. In this tale too there have been heroes and villains.

The villains are those who struggled so hard, in spite of damning evidence, to prevent justice being served. Chief among them must be former president Thabo Mbeki, who instigated a mini-constitutional crisis in 2007 by suspending prosecutions boss Vusi Pikoli to avert Selebi’s arrest, and who subsequently allowed — perhaps even tasked — his intelligence services to try and rescue Selebi by procuring a contradictory affidavit from Glenn Agliotti, the chief prosecution witness. Those were attempts to defeat the ends of justice, rightly condemned by Judge Meyer Joffe in his judgment on Friday.

Other villains include Selebi’s deputy commissioner, André Pruis, police intelligence boss Mulangi Mphego and others who fought dirty when it came to protecting their chief. One can only hope that they were motivated by a misplaced sense of loyalty rather than their own collusion with the crime network that had ensnared Selebi.

The heroes include Gerrie Nel and Andrew Leask, respectively the chief prosecutor and investigator in the Selebi matter — although one’s estimation of them needs to be tempered with a sense of their many failures. These notably include the easy indemnities granted to an assortment of crooks and killers ranging from Agliotti to Clinton Nassif, Mickey Schultz, Faizel Smith and Nigel McGurk, and the failure to dismantle the larger crime networks associated with them.

And then there was Paul O’Sullivan, the self-appointed crime buster who through his information networks fed both official investigators and the media important tip-offs and more. Notably, he brought Nel and Leask a major drug-bust on a platter, in which both Agliotti and Nassif later pleaded guilty. This must have counted as the single largest success in the domino strategy of knocking over subsidiary players until Selebi himself was in reach.

And finally there was the media, with members of the M&G investigative unit, now the nucleus of amaBhungane, and Nic Dawes, now editor of the M&G, at the forefront. For us it has been a long haul, tinged at times with self-doubt (as any journalist should have, the more so when the stakes are high), and more than often with doubt from colleagues and the public as our exposés appeared for so long not to be matched by official action against Selebi.

Light relief was provided by police intelligence’s bungled attempts to “expose” my colleague Sam Sole and I as drug users/peddlers. I can still picture small-time spook Fox’s triumphal expression when he repeated into his collar the name of the drug I had just confessed to taking. I can only imagine the disappointment at police headquarters when his “secret” recording was replayed and the assembled brass realised that I had referred to no more than a common remedy for a common cold.

Ultimately, we played our own small part in Selebi’s downfall. Had we not kept up our pressure the balance of state forces may well have tipped the other way.

The media in turn relies on others to provide it with information. In that respect we had many heroes of our own. O’Sullivan was an important one. His role is known as he has chosen to go public with it. There are others who will probably choose to keep their silence forever.

Our unsung heroes include a man who anonymously emailed us salivating instalments from near the heart of the criminal network. He shook like a rake, overwhelmed by his own experiences, when we finally met him.

Then there was the man we dubbed “Mafia” — and who was well-linked to it. His updates from a safe phone were invaluable. Yet others included a well-placed moneyman, a well-connected businessperson, a strategically placed employee and a private investigator. And yes, there was that blonde too, but saying more about her may be saying too much.

Heroes big and small supplied pieces of the puzzle, parts of which were put together by investigators and by the media, and parts of which ultimately served before a court of law. It was this flow of information which brought Selebi down, and which served our young democracy so well.

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  • amaBhungane

    amaBhungane are the investigators of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit, public interest initiative to produce better investigative stories and plough back through internships and advocacy. On this blog, amaBhungane -- seasoned and award-winning journalists -- will penetrate the world of smoke and mirrors to bring you the story behind the story. www.amabhungane.co.za