Remembering Jacob Sello Selebi

Jackie Slebi
Jackie Slebi

Former South African National Police Commissioner, Jackie Sello Selebi was buried in Pretoria over the weekend. I first met Selebi in 1989. If you think about it, that was the year when international relations were profoundly redefined since the end of World War II in 1945.

It was in 1989 that the Soviet Union broke up.The Berlin Wall, which separated the former West Germany from East Germany, also collapsed that year. That was also the year in which the cold war ended. And it was largely as a result of the events of this watershed year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 leading to the subsequent demise of the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994.

In 1989 Selebi was in Gaborone to attend a meeting between the ANC Youth League and the Youth League of the then ruling National Party. The ANC at the time was banned in South Africa, and hence the meeting was held in a neutral venue, Botswana. The meeting followed a series of others held between various white South African organisations with the ANC in exile. The first such meeting was held in 1987 in Dakar, Senegal between the ANC and leading white politicians, academics and businessmen.

At the meeting in Gaborone Selebi, as the president of the ANC Youth League came head to head with his nemesis, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, who was leading the National Party Youth league delegation. Selebi and his team were accompanied by two members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, Penuell Maduna and Steve Tshwete. Another notable person in the delegation was veteran diplomat Welile Nhlapho who had lived in Botswana for a long time as a refugee.

The meeting was held at Gaborone Sun. Both sides were meeting each other for the first time. Needless to say, that they did not trust each other. There was tension in the air. But there was mutual respect. The meeting was facilitated by Reverend Frank Chikane who was the Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches at the time. He became the Director General in the Presidency after 1994. Chikane was accompanied by Archbishop Khotso Makhulu of the Anglican Church in Gaborone.

Since the meeting was held behind closed doors the spokespersons of the two delegations, who happened to be Selebi and Van Schalkwyk, would brief the press in-between sessions and during time-outs.

With their gift of the gab both men were a journalist’s delight dishing out sound-bites and punch-lines clearly meant for public consumption.

The diminutive Van Schalwyk was a lecturer at Stellenbosch University at the time. The urbane van Schalkwyk was more  measured and professorial. On the other hand the ebullient towering Selebi, in a golf shirt, was erudite and exuberant.

The meeting achieved a lot to the extent that the two sides realised that they both had a common desire for peaceful coexistence in South Africa. I remember some of the members of the National Party Youth League at the end of the meeting saying how amazed they were as to how “civil” their counterparts from the ANCYL were. It was their first time to come face to face with “terrorists”!

Just before we dispersed, Ben Motlhalamme, who was a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, invited us to join the ANC Youth League delegation at his house for dinner. Selebi dominated proceedings with his jokes and experiences as an activist in South Africa during the 1970s before he fled the country. However, as soon as Maduna and Tshwete came on the scene he deferred to them.

The most captivating story was told by Tshwete as he related how he eluded the South African security police and eventually skipped the border to go in exile. The pipe-smoking burly and muscular Tshwete would gesticulate and demonstrate how he used to wrestle with police as an activist in the Eastern Cape. Tshwete and Maduna were to become cabinet ministers after the 1994 elections. 

The last time I saw Selebi was at a Pretoria hospital in 2013. I was admitted at the hospital and he was an outpatient. A friend, Bishy Mmusi, who accompanied me, was the first to recognise him and greeted him. Selebi was a shadow of himself. He said he was on dialysis. Broken. Sickly. Bitter. But he could still afford his vintage laconic grin. As an old fashioned scribe, for me first impressions still last. And the first cut is the deepest. Yes, Selebi may be “finish(ed) and klaar”, but I would rather remember him as a leader whose towering intellect made him the darling of journalists when he was in exile.

Editor's Comment
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