It was, from any angle, a sordid story. The details are complex and contested, but involve murder, bribes, drugs, and South Africa’s Chief of Police. In a landmark judgment on Friday, said former police chief, Jackie Selebi, was found guilty of accepting bribes from shadowy businessmen (and all-round bad guy) Glenn Agliotti. His conviction marks a swift fall from grace from a man who was once the head of Interpol, basically the world’s top cop. Sentencing is yet to happen, but the minimum stretch for the offence is 15 years in jail.
It’s encouraging to see Big Men fall. The fight against corruption can only start at the top, and South Africa’s prosecutors and courts must be applauded for their fight for justice.
But Selebi’s conviction must be understood in the context of South African politics. Selebi was Thabo Mbeki’s man; and he found himself under pressure only once Mbeki was out of office. Mbeki himself must be worried; the tenacious Irishman who brought down Selebi has promised Mbeki’s downfall too. It seems unlikely that this will come to anything, but may be a useful stick for Mbeki’s enemies to hold over his head. It will also be interesting to see if Selebi tries to bring anyone else down with him.
A further unsettling point is that Selebi’s prosecution was brought by the National Prosecuting Authority (known as the Scorpions) an independent body with a mandate to investigate anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Unfortunately, it appeared that the Scorpions overstepped the mark when they launched corruption investigations into a certain Jacob Zuma; after Mbeki lost power they were swiftly disbanded, and their function was absorbed into the South African Police Service – a body not free from a bit of criminal behaviour itself, as evidenced by Selebi.
Nonetheless, the message sent by the court in Johannesburg is powerful. At best, this case indicates that high-level corruption has very real consequences. At worst, it demonstrates to corrupt officials that they are at the mercy of the prevailing political winds, and if these change, as they do with relative frequency in South Africa, they might find themselves in a cell somewhere near Jackie Selebi. Perhaps this will make some think twice.