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Why did Mbeki ‘protect’ Selebi?

Professor Pierre de Vos, South Africa’s leading authority — in my opinion — on constitutional law, has written a blog which is published in the Sowetan today and which calls into question the relationship between former police commissioner Jackie Selebi and former president Thabo Mbeki, arising out of last week’s South Gauteng High Court conviction by Judge Meyer Joffe.

Specifically the professor suggests : “The conviction must place a question mark over the actions of former president Thabo Mbeki, who appointed Selebi and took steps aimed at protecting him and claimed that there was no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Selebi even after he (Mbeki) was briefed by the national director of public prosecutions about the evidence against the former top cop.”

“Why was Mbeki so adamant that Selebi should not be arrested? Why did Mbeki ask us to trust him on Selebi? And why did he maintain — in the face of overwhelming evidence provided to him — that there was no evidence to suggest that Selebi was a crook?” (De Vos)

The answer, I believe, relates to the circumstances in which Mbeki found himself at the time rather than any greater or lesser belief in the innocence of Selebi or any involvement in wrongdoing.

Accepting for the moment that Mbeki was referred to in the trial, as recipient of a gift from Selebi, this does not mean that he was in any way connected to the events that were unfolding between the top cop and Glenn Agliotti, got the gift or even knew of its source. To suggest otherwise is to say that any charity that benefited from the largesse of Bernie Madoff is involved in pyramid schemes.

Moreover, and with reference to the more pressing question of why he might have protected Selebi against prosecution, we need to look at the faction war between Mbeki and President Jacob Zuma at that time.

As most are aware, after Zuma was asked to step down as deputy president of South Africa by Mbeki, a rescue operation comprising the SACP, Cosatu, the left wing of the ANC and the ANCYL was mounted with the office of president as the target.

This culminated in the elective conference at Polokwane whereat Zuma took over from Mbeki as president of the ANC and was on his way towards the top office.

The above is a very simplistic account because below the surface a massive faction war was being waged between those who supported the president and those who backed the former president. Part of the collateral damage to this was the war between the police, then led by Selebi, and the Scorpions who included state prosecutor Gerrie Nel.

As part of that Polokwane elective conference the decision was taken to finally disband the Scorpions, which annoyed Professor De Vos, myself and every other South African who was tired of the crime statistics of this country. This decision, however, was not based upon an issue first raised at conference but rather was ongoing due to complaints of harassment by corrupt party members against the no-nonsense Scorpions.

Selebi and others held out that his prosecution by the Scorpions was an attempt by the Directorate of Special Operations to derail the efforts to close down South Africa’s top corruption fighting unit. In addition that he was a victim of the ongoing war between the factions — being firmly in the Mbeki camp — and a sacrificial pawn in the efforts to save the Scorpions.

After all if the police were corrupt how much more necessary would the Scorpions be?

Looking at it from Mbeki’s point of view the faction war was very real and extremely dirty. He would have had no doubt that Selebi’s claims of victimisation were real and that the possibility existed that the other side were intent on weakening his position by removing a loyal and powerful supporter through a prosecution.

As such his willingness to believe Selebi — who was vital to his cause at the time — and his reluctance to allow for his being sacrificed is understandable.

In this regard the trial confirmed that the state was prepared to go to any lengths in order to convict Selebi with druglords being given indemnity from prosecution in order to nail the top cop on corruption. No sacrifice was considered too great to achieve this goal.

In light of the same Mbeki too must have wondered why the state would give a walk to major criminals in order to prosecute Selebi.

He can only have concluded that the answer lay in the faction war that was ongoing until he was recalled.

Accordingly, though Mbeki might have been too accepting of Selebi, there were compelling reasons at that time why he would have been prepared to believe a friend rather than the powerful forces that were — in reality — lining up against him.


  • Mike Trapido is a criminal attorney and publicist having also worked as an editor and journalist. He was born in Johannesburg and attended HA Jack and Highlands North High Schools. He married Robyn in 1984 (Mrs Traps, aka "the government") and has three sons (who all look suspiciously like her ex-boss). He was a counsellor on the JCCI for a year around 1992. His passions include Derby County, Blue Bulls, Orlando Pirates, Proteas and Springboks. He takes Valium in order to cope with Bafana Bafana's results. Practice Michael Trapido Attorney (civil and criminal) 011 022 7332 Facebook