HERE’s a secret. It takes a lot for a news story to grab my attention. Usually, when I read the news, it will be in a benign state. I might even be lying back in bed, paging idly through a ream of newspapers for my Monday column in Business Day. Certainly it takes a little more than a bit of untidy corruption in the provinces or a big pile-up on Beyers Naude Drive for me to spill my tea in surprise. But quite a bit of tea went onto my laptop on Sunday afternoon and I barely noticed.
The Beeld newspaper photographed disgraced former police commissioner Jackie Selebi doing a spot of shopping in Pretoria somewhere, last week. He is on medical parole, after being found guilty of being friends with gangster Glenn Agliotti. His kidneys were on their last legs and his body was switching off at a rate that warranted him being sent home. That’s what the Department of Correctional Services said when it set him free in 2012. And that’s why finding him browsing through a mall for socks and biltong is a jolly good story.
Then someone at The Witness in KwaZulu-Natal had the idea to find the original miraculous recovery guy, Schabir Shaik, and ask him to give advice to Selebi.
“He needs to reflect on his own life and get his humanness back,” Shaik said, presumably whilst wearing the straightest of faces. He warned Selebi that men who thought that they were greater than God had a hard time adjusting when their power was stripped away. (I’m guffawing helplessly by this point.)
“(Selebi) is a walking, talking time bomb. If the media is questioning (why Selebi is still alive) they should rather scrutinise the medical diagnosis. I am not condoning what crime he committed, but I don’t believe he is in cahoots with medical professionals. They are not going to put their careers on the line for him,” he said. Comforting.
I was puzzled. What was this? What was The Witness trying to say with this story? Was I meant to believe Shaik’s unique perspective on Selebi’s miraculous recovery was deserving of my attention? Seriously? So tell us, John Wilkes Booth, which bullets would you recommend for presidential assassinations?
It had to be a very backhanded slap to Shaik’s face, I thought. They must have realised there was an opportunity to use his ego against him. To make a larger point.
I’ve spoken in a previous column about the purpose of our criminal justice system — and in the context of what you might describe as the correctional service’s softly-softly approach, I’m forced to accept that it is possible for convicted criminals to walk out of jail midway through their sentences, for “medical” reasons. Rapists have been sent home to die after being diagnosed as being in the final stages of AIDS-related death. It happens.
But then those people are supposed to die. They are meant to go home and slip away into the darkness, without troubling us by dying inhumanely in prison away from family and friends.
When Shaik was spotted playing golf after not dying on his medical parole, the parole board collectively shrugged its shoulders and said it couldn’t compel someone to die once released. The convict said something similar himself. But they missed the point. If the board is to have any claim to competence, it must be able to distinguish between a man who is going to die, and one who isn’t. That is their basic job. They ought to be able to spot a chronic kidney problem that will vanish within a few months.
Is there such a thing as being too sick to be in jail, but not sick enough to die? Is that not what prison hospitals are for?
Then I had another thought. Was The Witness playing a high-minded game? The paper carries a story with advice from one convict to another on how to play on the public’s emotions to get away with serving time. It struck me that a great number of people would read that story and think Shaik had given good advice. Some might even see this as proof of his rehabilitation. I realised this story spoke profoundly to our crippled sense of justice. Once you peel away the layers, you will realise that a lot of corruption and abuse of power had to occur for Shaik to be free in Durban, and give Selebi (free in Pretoria) some pretty unreflective advice in the papers without a moment’s pause. What’s wrong with this picture? Everything.
This is not about Selebi, or Shaik. Our failure to be outraged by this bizarre show is a sign of our complicity. This is a mirror held up to all our faces, asking us to acknowledge the ugly beast that stares back.
Well played, Witness. Well played.
• Shaik’s tips for Selebi, The Witness