It was undeniably a bad week for police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi, but I would contend that it might have been an even worse week for President Thabo Mbeki. And that says a lot about the dire political straits in which our president finds himself.

Of course, Selebi is in big trouble. Ironically it was all seemingly brought to a head by his quite outrageous application for an interdict to prohibit the NPA from charging him with corruption. This application was (rightly) rejected by the Pretoria High Court and the NPA finally announced that Selebi would indeed be charged, providing salacious and damning allegations against the police chief.

The NPA must still prove beyond reasonable doubt that Selebi was corrupt in the criminal sense and we cannot assume that he is guilty of any crime, but even if only a small number of the allegations made by the NPA against him are true, as it surely must be, Selebi’s image has been forever tarnished and he is not fit to sell second-hand cars, let alone being the head of our police force.

He might never be proven criminally corrupt, but he sure seems like a slimy and morally corrupt person to me, asking for money from Agliotti and others to pay for his lavish lifestyle. I, for one, would not want to be his friend — finish and klaar.

Maybe it is the remnants of my Calvinist upbringing, which taught us that hard work and more than a good dollop of suffering was the only way to build one’s character, and how one should be frugal with one’s money because “it did not grow on trees”, but the allegations about how Selebi blithely took money from now convicted criminals like Agliotti shocks me deeply.

It looks very much like he had an attitude that other people had to pay his bills (a bit like Jacob Zuma, come to think of it) and seemingly saw nothing wrong with asking money from others to pay for all kinds of expenses he need not have incurred. And this is money he did not work for — unless, of course, the NPA is correct and he is indeed criminally liable and did work for his money by doing favours for the crooks.

But although Selebi is facing serious charges for which he can be locked away for a very long time, the link between receiving money from crooks and him doing favours in return must still be proven in a court, and he therefore has a long legal road ahead before his freedom may potentially be taken from him.

For Mbeki the damage to his reputation suffered last week is immediate and, I would think, irreparable. Recall that the president suspended Vusi Pikoli, the head of the NPA, three days after Pikoli had issued a warrant of arrest for Selebi, thus seemingly protecting Selebi and interfering in something he had no knowledge of (a bit like interfering in the medical debate around HIV and Aids, come to think of it).

Recall also that our president had said that people should “trust him” on the Selebi issue and that he would only act against Selebi once people brought him proof of wrongdoing by the police chief.

By then the NPA had already assembled this case against him, a case so strong that a panel of independent experts has decided it is strong enough to proceed with prosecution. Mbeki must have been informed of this, yet he suspended Pikoli and the presidential spokesperson darkly hinted that the allegations against the police chief was all part of a plot by dark forces to destabilise South Africa and that there was no case against Selebi.

Once again the president second-guessed the experts based on conspiracy theories — sounds depressingly familiar, does it not? At the time, many of us who held the line against the Zuma camp, which was alleging that the president was abusing state power to settle political scores, were shocked by the suspension. It seemed to show quite clearly that when the president wanted to, he could act decisively, and even illegally, to try to prevent a prosecution — something he decidedly did not do when Zuma was first charged.

It therefore strongly suggested that state institutions had been or were being used to settle political scores and it fatally undermined Mbeki’s credibility in his fight with Zuma.

I, for one, also argued that the suspension of Pikoli was unconstitutional and that the president was undermining the Constitution to achieve an as yet unclear purpose. (Was it merely loyalty to an old exile friend that once again clouded the president’s judgement and made him blunder like this? It would not be the first time, as anyone who knows the name Manto Tshabalala-Msimang could testify.)

Of course it is also clear now that — as I argued before — the terms of the Ginwala inquiry had no bearing on any legal reasons for which the president could actually fire Pikoli and that this was all a smokescreen to try to protect the police chief.

Now Selebi is being charged, which means the president had not been successful in his attempt to protect Selebi and is thus sitting with egg on his face. More like a giant omelette, actually.

His suspension of Pikoli now clearly seems like a very stupid (not to mention illegal and destructive) thing to have done. It is hard to see why the Ginwala commission is still going ahead with its inquiry when it is clear as daylight that the real reasons for Pikoli’s suspension have now been shown to be utterly wrong.

It all shows that Mbeki is not always the clear-eyed and wily political operator he is made out to be. This was the one thing we all agreed on — that Mbeki could at least be respected because he was such a smooth political operator. Now even this has been taken away from him and his actions just look paranoid, hasty, high-handed and not thought through at all.

Maybe he thought he would be able to manipulate the acting head of the NPA, but (I have to admit, to my surprise) this was not possible and the NPA stood up to the president and the police and suddenly has regained some of the credibility it lost over the past months.

I cannot help feeling a bit of sympathy for our president, who seems isolated, lonely and out of touch and who has clearly so badly miscalculated in this matter. It is so much easier to feel pity for a man when one does not think he is a brilliant Machiavellian master pulling the strings behind the scenes, but merely sees him as yesterday’s man with little political insight and savvy who cannot stop himself protecting old friends — no matter what.

Maybe it is time to write Mbeki’s political obituary. Thabo Mbeki, RIP.


  • Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics, including gay rights, the right to equality, social and economic rights, and affirmative action. Since October 2006 he also publishes a blog, Constitutionally Speaking.


Pierre de Vos

Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics,...

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