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REVIEW: To Catch A Cop

to catch a cop

to catch a copyTo Catch a Cop: The Paul O’Sullivan Story

Jacana

By Marianne Thamm

REVIEW: Donald Paul

This is the tale of an epic clash between an underdog hero and ubiquitous villains. To Catch a Cop reads like a thriller, with the many strands of Paul O’Sullivan’s spiderweb organogram precisely and inexerobaly brought together by Marianne Thamm to culminate in the trial and disgrace of the once national police commissioner Jackie Selebi.

But a nagging thread runs through this tangled rats’ nest that Marianne Thamm so deftly unravels and rewinds into a neat ball, a strand that won’t tuck away neatly. You unpick the niggle early, when the disgraced national commissioner of police Jackie Selebi recounts how he was chosen for the job.

According to Selebi the then president Thabo Mbeki took him aside and said he had a “list of 100 potential candidates” to replace outgoing commissioner George Fivaz. The president then said, “I looked at this list and the only name that I found that I can think of is you.” And therein lies the rot that continues to destroy our “state of Denmark”.

Why did Mbeki — and scores of other seemingly honourable men and women — not only support this odious man, but also wilfully attempt to cover up for him? Even months before his fall, with the evidence of his corruption and mendacity mounting, Mbeki renewed Selebi’s contract for a further year.

Thamm tells a brilliant story of these murky slime pool lizards with such clarity and elegance, you really only need to wash your hands after each chapter. By the end of it, you are left nodding agreement with the tenacious and probably slightly unbalanced Paul O’Sullivan, that life is a simple but sustained struggle between the good and the bad and that it gets ugly in between.

The list of names that fall into the bad category is long and many of whom are very much alive and continuing with their suspect behaviour, for example suspended crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli. He’s now biting the hand that feeds him, turning on Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa (consipcuously absent from these pages, but appointed by President Jacob Zuma in 2009, just four months before Selebi went on trial). According to the M&G (2 March 2014) Mdluli claims to have evidence that “[Mthethwa] and top generals knew about fraud and corruption in the police’s crime intelligence unit but did not act on the knowledge”.

Selebi never spent a single day of his 15-year sentence in a prison cell — he was pardoned for health reasons — and was protected by people as high up as the then president of the country. Nothing seems to have changed within the current crop ruling the country’s police force. O’Sullivan is more sanguine and firmly believes that there are more good cops on the beat than bad ones; that good will triumph over evil.

But there is that niggley thread that you want to keep pulling: why was Selebi appointed in the first place? Why is the subsequent crop of ministers and commissioners untouchable? It is obvious that these decisions have resulted in a spectacular faillure by government to reform the South African Police Service.

O’Sullivan has one simple answer: greed. And when you read about the amount of drugs being moved freely about the country; the profits from prostitution, human trafficking and smuggling that are being laundered through South African businesses, it is hard to come up with any other reasonable answer. “If there is one thing I have learned from life,” said O’Sullivan to Thamm, “it’s that a lot of people prey on greed.”

If you thought that the collapse of policing in South Africa was a problem, then reading this book will explode even your most serious criticisms. The rot is deep, insidious and vicious — the body count in To Catch a Cop makes most thriller fiction read like a nursery rhyme — and there appears to be no attempt by government to do anything about it other than talk platitudes. Right to the end of his trial, Selebi and his supporters tried to paint a picture of O’Sullivan as simply a white “foreigner” with a racist dislike for an honourable black cadre.

O’Sulivan does not ride off into the sunset victorious. He may have won the battle against Selebi but the war continues. The last section of the book moves on to another figure in this heinous cabal of comrades and crooks: Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir, currently under arrest and charged with, among other things, attempted murder. His target: Paul O’Sullivan.

And like any good thriller, there’s a sequel to come.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2014

REVIEW: Kgalema Motlanthe – A Political Biography

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Kgalema Motlanthe: A political biography

Ebrahim Harvey

Jacana

REVIEW BY: Donald Paul

Not many biographers would open their work with a volley across the bow of a fellow writer, but Ebrahim Harvey states upfront that, unlike Mark Gevisser, he will write the political biography of Kgalema Motlanthe that will “comprehensively unpack the dream itself” — alluding, of course to the subtitle of Gevisser’s book “The Dream Deferred”.

The dream, says Harvey “has to confront the very nature of the decades long struggle against political oppression (apartheid) and economic exploitation (capitalism)… and of the ANC’s policies and strategies that developed in relation to those two inseparable historical realities”.

A biographer need not feel an affinity for the subject (though Harvey clearly does) and it helps that there is a frame of reference on which both writer and subject concur. The concurrence here—and it is assumed and not reinforced by anything Motlanthe says, for he says very little—is that the ANC’s policy was formed out of a socialist manifesto and that it has abandoned this in favour of free-market capitalism. The dream has become a nightmare.

The confusing thing is that we are never really certain that it is Motlanthe’s dream that is unpacked. In fact, it is hard to discern any thing that can be remotely attached to Motlanthe and wrapped in the term “dream”—a word that evokes grand aspirations, a longing for things bigger than the painstaking administration of policy documents and proper bureaucratic procedures.

This is not a flawed book; it is a bad one. The juicy bits, if they can be called such, have been splashed about in the media: that he saved Zuma at Polokwane, that he is dissatisfied with the ANC’s failure to of the poor, that the ANC did not need to expel Julius Malema, etc. But, strip away that and very little remains except a dry discourse on a need to revert to social engineering (frighteningly, of a Chinese nature, given Motlanthe’s infatuation with the Chinese way of government).

If Motlanthe is to be treated as a political animal, which the title of this book indicates, then Harvey has described some near-extinct species of sloth, patient by nature, not nurture. He describe Motlanthe’s “call to dutiful service”—embodied in his phrase, “In the struggle you do what you have to do and can do”—as a “passionate calling”: this is akin to describing the action of a hamster on a wheel as “persuasive”.

Perhaps, Harvey subscribes to the notion that politics is about ideas not personalities and thus we do not need to know or understand more about the current deputy president and maybe future leader of the country. But we cannot separate politics and personalities—rather like saying cuisine is about calories and not taste—and that is why the book is so dire.

The Motlanthe we see shows no leadership qualities: he is a grey man, filling his time with the endless footnotes of the history of the struggle like a PhD candidate determined to exhibit to his examiners the breadth of his reading. We are told, endlessly of his leadership prowess, but at every defining moment he fails. As the head of the NUM, he was easily persuaded to accept Mbeki’s explanation of why Gear—the spear of free-market capitalism—was right. He defends his action by saying “we decided to tighten our belts but defend our independence and therefore free ourselves from the influence and in fact dictate of multilateral institutions”. He then criticises the fact that Gear was not discussed within the ANC, yet he was in a position to make that debate happen and remained silent.

He also failed as the ANC’s secretary-general to display his so-called legendary negotiating pragmatism when Cosatu objected to iGoli2002 programme but he simply went along with it. Yet, that same secretary general at a 2000 Cosatu May Day rally “called on union members to ‘intensely hate capitalism and engage in a struggle against it’. These are words by which he does not live, and Harvey brushes over such duplicity too many times to achieve credibility.

For example, Motlanthe’s account of what transpired between himself at Luthuli House and Andrew Feinstein over the arms debacle conflicts with Feinstein’s. Harvey doesn’t pursue it. And he allows Motlanthe simply to avoid the question: what did he think about the arms deal? He was asked by Archbishop Tutu to instigate an arms deal inquiry during his eight-month tenure as president of South Africa, but refused to do so. It was on his watch that Vusi Pikoli was dismissed, against the recommendations of the Ginwala commission. (He denies a substantial pay-out was made to Pikoli to keep quiet.) And the less said about his chairmanship of the deployment committee in 2008 the better (which is obviously the choice Harvey makes).

Lord Douglas Hurd in an interview on his favourite political biographies, said the good ones are “writing the story of history and the story of their times through the lives of particular individuals”. He said such books should appeal to people for whom history has no thrall. On this measure alone, this book fails.

Perhaps Motlanthe said it best: “I still insist that it is not for members or followers of any organisation to want to be leaders… To volunteer leadership is the antithesis of democracy.” And therein lies the rub: what you get is “100% Maybe” (apologies to ZANews) and a dull book.

  • Donald Paul’s own blog can be found here.
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2012