Corruption Trial Marks Major Test for South Africa

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South Africa's former police chief Jackie Selebi leaves court on the fourth day of his corruption trial in Johannesburg on Oct. 8, 2009

Even in a country where corruption and crime are as endemic as in South Africa, the tales of murder, bribery and betrayal emerging from the trial of the nation's former police chief this month have made for riveting drama.

Jackie Selebi, the former South African ambassador to the U.N. and head of Interpol, finally went on trial in Johannesburg on Oct. 5 after nearly two years of court delays. A close ally of former President Thabo Mbeki, Selebi is the most senior member of the governing African National Congress (ANC) to go to trial on corruption charges, accused of accepting bribes from a tycoon murder suspect, Glenn Agliotti, and his associates in 2004 and 2005. The case is being seen as a critical test of South Africa's judicial system. Since being elected President in April, Jacob Zuma has vowed to clean up South African politics, firing and disciplining a number of senior civil servants. An impartial and transparent trial for Selebi would be an important milestone in the efforts of the courts to recover their legitimacy following years of highly politicized cases.

The trial began with the airing of some very salacious accusations. Agliotti, who agreed to testify in exchange for indemnity on bribery charges, detailed the types of payments he said he made to Selebi, including $150,000 in cash and gifts of designer clothes. "I made payments to the accused because firstly we were friends and I needed him in my business deals," Agliotti testified. At times, his testimony verged on farce, such as when he described going on a shopping trip with Selebi to buy a pair of small, broad shoes that might fit the peculiarly shaped feet of Mbeki, who had appointed Selebi.

Agliotti said he was given introduction fees when he took other questionable businessmen to meet Selebi, including Zimbabwean tycoon Billy Rautenbach, who two weeks ago pleaded guilty in a Pretoria court to 326 counts of tax evasion. In return for the money and gifts he gave to Selebi, Agliotti testified, Selebi tried to influence police cases involving him and his associates and tipped him off about investigations and surveillance operations the government had launched against him. Selebi denies all charges.

Agliotti is a familiar name in South Africa. He is charged with the murder of his former mining boss and friend Brett Kebble, who was a major donor to the ANC's Youth League, an organization that both Selebi and Nelson Mandela once led. Agliotti denies killing Kebble, who was shot dead as he drove near his house in Johannesburg in 2006, but has admitted taking part in what he described as an "assisted suicide." Agliotti has said that Kebble, who had severe money troubles, had wanted to die and that he had merely helped with arrangements. The case goes to trial next year.

It was during the investigation into Kebble's death that the hapless Agliotti's relationship with Selebi emerged. Selebi, who was the country's first black police chief, once said of Agliotti that he was "my friend, finish and klaar [done]." The two men now appear to be estranged. They did not look at each other in court, and at one point during last week's testimony, Agliotti seemed close to tears when he said, "It's not easy being here. I didn't want to be here to testify against my then friend and the accused."

Also keeping his distance from the trial is Mbeki. Mbeki was ousted by Zuma as leader of the ANC nearly two years ago following a lengthy power struggle in which the rivals fought numerous battles in the courts. Zuma faced accusations of rape and corruption (he was acquitted of the first, and charges in the second case were dropped). Mbeki, meanwhile, was badly damaged by his association with Selebi — and his reluctance, even as Selebi's legal problems deepened, to censure him.

Although Selebi's trial signifies a step forward in prosecuting allegations of corruption in South Africa, few expect it will do much to clean up the country's politics. With the prosecutor's dropping the corruption case against Zuma weeks before he was elected, the allegations against him remain unresolved. And while Zuma has taken pains to include a broad spectrum of leaders from different parties and factions within the ANC in his Cabinet, his appointment earlier this month of Mo Shaik to head South Africa's intelligence service raised a few eyebrows. Shaik's brother Schabir Shaik was convicted in 2005 of bribing Zuma, a case that prompted prosecutors to open their corruption investigation into the current leader of the country. In South African politics, it seems, the drama never ceases.