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Book Review: To Catch a Cop: The Paul O’Sullivan Story

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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 on 11 April 2014]

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