The national police boss and head of Interpol has openly admitted that one of his ("former"?) friends is a big-time criminal. But the national director of public prosecutions cannot arrest the police boss because of political considerations. Pusch Commey reports from Johannesburg on a messy case that has dragged in the minister of justice and even President Mbeki himself.
At the end of the day, it was a question of who had the more powerful muscles. When Jackie Selebi, the national police commissioner and head of Interpol, faced off with Vusi Pikoli, the national director of public prosecutions, in early October, a crisis of gigantic proportions engulfed the nation.
In a complicated web of intrigue that would surely have been a bestseller were it fiction, the police boss himself was accused in the media of having links to organised crime. Triggering those allegations was a man known as "the landlord", Glen Aglioti. He is currently standing trial for his role in the importation of 250kg of hashish. Among his many sins is the allegation that he is the brain behind syndicates running nefarious activities like smuggling cigarettes and moving stolen goods.
Worse was to come when he was also charged with the September 2005 murder of a billionaire mining magnate, Brett Kebble, in bizarre circumstances. Originally the murder looked like an assassination but has recently been seen as an assisted suicide.
Gunmen fired several bullets at him while he was driving from his house in his car. After his death, Kebble was found to have literally stolen millions of rands from his own companies and lavished gifts on politicians. He had also taken out an insurance policy worth 30 million rands weeks before his apparent assassination.
The police were alleged to have interfered with crucial evidence and literally messed up the crime scene. Fingers started being pointed at the police boss, Jackie Selebi, who was said to have made some phone calls to the scene.
Selebi came under media scrutiny in mid-2007. His friendship with Aglioti had become public knowledge. An unnamed source had alleged that he had seen Selebi pick up some 50,000-odd rands in cash from "the landlord". An embattled Selebi gave a press conference, and putting up his hands, declared to the assembled journalists: "These hands are clean."
He was particularly peeved that he could be valued so cheaply. He did not, however, deny his friendship with "the landlord". He told the media openly: "Yes, he is my friend, finished and klaar [closed] ".
He, however, denied any involvement in criminal activity and passed it off as a smear campaign. But apparently the head of the National Prosecution Authority, Vusi Pikoli, was far from impressed. He is also the boss of the Scorpions, South Africa's version of America's FBI.
The Scorpions, a special investigative unit with powers of arrest, deals with high priority crimes and most importantly organised crime. Formed in 1999, it has been instrumental in the investigation of high profile figures like Jacob Zuma and Winnie Mandela, as well as the Boeremag, a motley collection of white right-wingers who set off bombs and had plans to overthrow the government.
The Scorpions have also ensured prosecution of some members of parliament for fraud. On the political front, the Scorpions have been skating on thin ice.
On 23 September this year, there was the shock announcement of the suspension of Pikoli pending an inquiry into his fitness to hold office. The government cited a break-down of relationship between him and his boss, Bridget Mabandla, the minister of justice.
It turned out to be over a warrant of arrest, and another warrant of search and seizure obtained by Pikoli, authorising the arrest of the police boss, Jackie Selebi, on a string of charges ranging from corruption to racketeering. …