How the press welcomed Jackie Selebi's appointment

An analysis first published in, November 17 2006

On the 20th of October 1999 Cabinet announced the appointment of Jackie Selebi as Commissioner of Police, although he would only formally take up the position in the new year. There were four factors which should have made this appointment a highly contentious one, even if some of his questionable associations were not known at the time.

The first was that Selebi had no policing experience whatsoever. The second was that he was clearly a political appointee. He had been placed 147th on the ANC's 1994 election list and served briefly as an ANC MP before being redeployed into the Department of Foreign Affairs -- first as an ambassador, and then as Director-General of the Department. Moreover, his appointment was part of the ANC's openly expressed drive to bring all state institutions under party control. The third was that he was extremely close to Thabo Mbeki personally. As the Mail & Guardian noted on his appointment he had the "ear and respect of...Mbeki, a man to whom he is said to be fiercely loyal". The fourth was that at the same this appointment was made, the highly respected head of the Safety & Security Secretariat, Azhar Cachalia, was forced from his position; and that body, designed to ensure civilian oversight over the police, was downgraded into insignificance.

In the light of these facts (all of which were well known at the time) -- and this week's developments -- it is interesting to go back into the press archives and see what the English-language press in South Africa had to say about his appointment after it was announced:

Business Day, for one, stated that while "many question whether someone who is essentially a political animal owing loyalty to the ruling party, rather than a professional policeman, is the right person for the job. In the circumstances, Selebi is probably as close to the ideal candidate as is available." (Business Day Editorial 22nd October 1999)

The Cape Times described Selebi as a "well-respected leader" adding that it was clear that Selebi had a "plan of action for the SAPS to hone it into a sleekly administered force with better systems. If Selebi achieves only his goal of making the SAPS an efficient force that delivers to the people he will have gone a long way in the very necessary road to making it an organisation that is trusted by the public. It is essential for South Africa that the force is a happy one--with personnel committed to the task of cleaning up crime in South Africa . For this to happen, transformation of the police must take place. Selebi, it appears, has the commitment and talent to make this happen and raise the image of the police for those who work in it and those who depend on it." (Cape Times Editorial 22nd October 1999)

The Citizen also "welcomed" the appointment. "Certainly President Mbeki is putting his favourites in top jobs, but this has a positive side. President Mbeki bears the ultimate responsibility for sorting out crime in this country....We believe Mr Selebi, with the full support of Mr Tshwete and President Mbeki, is an excellent choice for the job." (Citizen Editorial 22nd October 1999)

The Sunday Times "welcomed" the appointment, announced in October 1999, of Jackie Selebi as police commissioner. It added that he was "the right man at the right time for the policing job." ("At last, the talkers are giving way to the doers", Sunday Times Editorial 24th October 1999)

For the Sowetan the important thing was that Selebi was black, and he could be relied upon to discriminate against white officers in the police force. It stated, "Jackie Selebi's appointment as national police commissioner has met with surprisingly little opposition. And that is encouraging. We hope this signals a greater appreciation of the need for transformation of the civil service in a way that reflects the demographics of our country." (Sowetan Editorial 22nd October 1999)

The EP Herald was also positive about the appointment. Although it acknowledged that policing was a totally new field of activity for Selebi "he's fortunate to have a useful background in the fraught and sensitive world of diplomacy: he'll need that and the generally favourable welcome as he uses every ounce of his skills in forging a united, cost-effective, motivated, corruption-free and skilled force." For the Herald, like the Sowetan, a major consideration was Selebi's skin colour. It concluded, "It's important, now, for a black person to be seen at the head of the police to promote ordinary black public's respect for the service. It's the best way of beating crime." (The Eastern Province Herald Editorial 22nd October 1999)

The City Press began its editorial "Hearty congratulations to Jackie Selebi on his appointment as the new Commissioner of Police after a short-lived but sterling job as the director-general of foreign affairs". "Knowing Selebi as we do", it continued, "we believe he will acquit himself well in his new position." For City Press Selebi's political connections were a recommendation for the position. It noted that he was "no stranger to politics, having played a leading role in the South African Students Organisation, been head of the ANC Youth League, an executive member of the ANC and an MP. That is why we find it surprising that some white politicians claim to know little of him and others protest his lack of experience as a policeman. It is about time this position was given to a black person, with or without police experience. The truth is, the police department is still seen as a bastion of apartheid....It's about time that black people feel protected by their own kith and kin. South Africa is a black country and it must be seen as such." City Press Editorial 24th October 1999

This article was first published on on November 17 2006

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