OPINION: Selebi legacy. It's too late to rewrite history
Someone as complicated as Jackie Selebi, a former ANC Youth League leader, foreign affairs supremo, struggle icon and corrupt cop, was always going to have a complicated funeral. Many people would remember only the news headlines of the last decade, the shoes and clothes bought by "my friend, finish en klaar" Glen Agliotti. Those who knew him for a much longer time would remember someone very different. He is not alone in his complexity. Someone like Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, while not corrupt, had a similarly complex legacy. However, when people try to make claims that simply cannot be true, or attempt to re-write history, we must not forget the truth.
Over the weekend, the funeral of Jackie Selebi saw several claims made about him. His brother, Al Haj Sulaiman Selebi, claimed that the media had never bothered to get Jackie Selebi's side of the story. He also said that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had somehow targeted his brother unfairly. The ANC's deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte backed up this claim, and said the NPA needed to release a report on its conduct during the trial urgently.
Then the Sunday Independent broke the story that former police crime intelligence boss Mulangi Mphego said that there was a crime intelligence operation into Agliotti, and that "[w]e then agreed, at that level (the level of the National Intelligence Co-ordinating Committee) that we [were] going to task the national commissioner to have a relationship with this fellow, Agliotti." In other words, he claims that Selebi was conducting a sting operation into Agliotti, and that all the money he received from him was therefore part of that operation.
And then there was the contribution from former President Thabo Mbeki, the man who famously told religious leaders to "trust" him on the Selebi issue, when the claims first started swirling around him. He claimed that the entire case against Selebi "was a feud between one law enforcement agency wanting to bring down the most powerful policeman in Africa".
To go through all of that, one would certainly get the impression that Selebi had been hard done by, that perhaps he had been dragged through the mud, and treated unfairly.
But the cold hard facts, at least the ones available to us at present, simply do not add up to the same.
Firstly, his brother's claim that the media didn't bother to get his side of the story just isn't true. I myself was one of the many who over the years tried to ask him about the claims of corruption against him. I remember it well: it was at the launch of Crimeline in 2007, when I went up to him, microphone in hand, and asked him to comment on the claims against him. He refused to speak, angrily asking, "Why are you bringing this up now?" It was a very short conversation. One-way, in fact.
A brother, speaking during a time of grief, can be forgiven. But professional politicians cannot. Particularly former presidents. And neither can former Crime Intelligence heads.
The first point to make is that there was not just one judge sitting over Selebi's case; there was an appeal. Selebi himself took to the stand during his case. Not once, not a single time, was there any mention of this "intelligence operation". Not during the run-up to the case, not during the case itself, and not during the appeal. And bear in mind, there was plenty of opportunity. He could have held a press conference, issued a statement, granted an interview, done almost anything.
But he did not choose to do so. Despite seeing his reputation being destroyed. Despite watching all he had built up being demolished. Despite going to jail. It is simply not rational to assume that he would rather have gone to jail than speak the truth, and such, one would argue, easily proven truth.
It could be argued that maybe the stakes were too high, that maybe for some reason we are not aware of, there would have been systemic instability if Selebi had said something. But that would be to forget that Mbeki suspended then-NPA head Vusi Pikoli as he was about to charge Selebi. Surely all Mbeki would have needed to do would have been to explain to Pikoli how this was about a "feud between law enforcement agencies". Pikoli is considered to be a reasonable man; he had only been appointed by Mbeki a couple of years before, so it would be hard to claim that Mbeki could not trust him with this information. Also, Mbeki was happy to suspend Pikoli over this issue, so it can't be claimed that the stakes were too high for this information to be revealed. What could be more important than the incredible systemic damage that he caused to the NPA through this action?
It also seems impossible to think that Selebi would have remained silent, once he knew that Agliotti was not going to go to jail. Once the plea bargain that Agliotti received was signed, he would have known that the intelligence operation had failed, and now would have been the best time to go public, especially if it would have saved his reputation and spare him a long-term jail sentence.
But from a slightly higher view, even the idea of the National Intelligence Co-ordinating Committee deciding that the National Police Commissioner was the right person to not just run a sting operation, but actually be the person who does the police work, is just madness. A commissioner should administrate, deal with the difficult issues, not be on the ground running sting operations. He's not James Bond, he's an administrator. And if he doesn't like that, he doesn't have to take the job when it's offered to him. Even if he had some prior relationship with Agliotti, he could still have provided an introduction to a proper police intelligence operative, and let them get on with it.
While one doesn't expect that committee to publish its minutes on a website near you, presumably it should be pretty easy to determine if it did make such a decision. Other people sat on that committee; surely they would all come out at the same time and support this claim. If they haven't now, then one presumes that it simply is not true.
The other point that Mphego simply cannot answer is why is he making this claim only now, after Selebi has died. It is too much too presume that there is coincidence of facts, that some other process unfolded such in the same month that Selebi died that allows him to speak now. For Mphego's claim to survive, he has to provide a rational explanation for his decision to only speak now, and not before. After all, surely he would prefer for Selebi to die knowing his name had been cleared?
Over the last few years, the claim has grown louder that Pikoli was wrong to give a plea deal to Agliotti that saw him escaping jail, while going after Selebi in the way he did. The problem with that claim is that it completely disregards the fact that Selebi was the National Police Commissioner, and, as Pikoli has said several times, what could possibly be more dangerous than a corrupt National Police Commissioner? No one, including myself, is happy that Agliotti is a free man. But one drug dealer who is free is a price worth paying to make sure that our National Police Commissioner is not corrupt. The damage that a corrupt person in that high office could cause in the future surely outweighs the damage that one drug dealer has caused in the past.
No one has provided a strong case against that proposition; presumably it means that this is more about politics, and about protecting Selebi, than the rights and wrongs of what actually happened.
The same re-writing of history has occurred recently over the legacy of FW de Klerk. There have been claims that he had no choice but to un-ban the ANC and release Nelson Mandela. They forget, or were not there at the time, the shock it was to almost everyone when de Klerk made that announcement. In the sound clips of his speech, you can hear his own MPs' gasps, who couldn't believe it was happening. PW Botha could have released Mandela, but he didn't. Which surely proves that de Klerk did have to make a decision. That doesn't mean that he doesn't have some responsibility for what happened during the end of apartheid, the actions of Eugene de Kock, the provision of weapons to Inkatha, and his moral responsibility for being a big part of the apartheid machine before 1990. It also doesn't mean that his sometimes simply backward comments about the state of our nation are above criticism. But it does mean that we have to examine his decision then without regard to the politics of now.
The reason that some people claim he had no choice is because it is in their interests do so. It is in their interests to lower his name because it strengthens them to claim they had brought the country to a place where he had no choice. The same is true here about Selebi.
His brother is bitter about the media because he is grieving. Mbeki is speaking as he is because his behaviour in suspending Pikoli to protect Selebi was disgraceful, and he is trying to get away from it. Mphego clearly has his own agenda. Those agendas have to be properly interrogated before any of their comments, which are no more than their attempts at re-writing history, can be even considered.
That Selebi was a hero of the struggle, a leader of the ANC Youth League and a director-general of the Foreign Affairs Department should not be taken away from him. But neither should we forget, as tragic as it was for him and the country, how it all ended.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes