Mandy Wiener walked alone into a room filled with gangsters. These were brothers in blood, men who would not sell each other out for love or money.
But she had an agreement with them. They could see her manuscript about the murder of mining magnate Brett Kebble if they told her everything they knew about what happened, and everything about themselves.
But the moment of handing her book over to them was “something else”. The young Eye Witness News reporter had got close to Kebble’s avowed killers, Mikey Schultz, Nigel McGurk and Faizel “Kappie” Smith, as she chased the story of Kebble’s death.
The story was far bigger than whether Kebble had wanted to die or not. This story was about dangerous, decadent villains desperate to shut each other up. So when she gave the gangsters her manuscript, Wiener’s journalism was as much at risk as the issue of trust.
“They had to sign a confidentiality agreement. It wasn’t a quid pro quo I felt entirely comfortable with, but the publishers required it.”
These were some of the men murder trial judge Frans Kgomo referred to as “sinister, shady characters with a hidden agenda” in a matter which was not “a run-of-the-mill case of murder or conspiracy”. Judge Kgomo said it was “about greedy characters, corrupt civil servants and corrupt officials who dined with devils incarnate”.
In the end, Schultz, McGurk and Smith had no problem with Wiener’s work. In fact, she says, they seemed to get something positive out of the unravelling of their own dark narratives.
“It was somehow important for them to have their stories told that way with, I suppose, a unique insight. Their world can be violent and scary. They acknowledge that completely, but they continuously separate themselves from being evil, and I think the fact that I reflected that was important to them.”
Wiener says her ability to talk to and work with men like these over such a protracted period, through many inversions of morality, can be put down to her parents. They taught her to “break bread with all men”.
When we met to talk about her book, Killing Kebble: An Underworld Exposed, she was about to go for a fitting of her wedding dress. Her wedding was only a few days away.
The Wieners are kind, middle-class, Jewish people from Polokwane where Wiener, not yet 30, grew up.
On the face of it, Killing Kebble, Wiener’s first book, is about a number of new South African stereotypes. She has traced how bouncers effectively became stooges in a much graver, more destructive agenda. There was a country’s president trying to save his political career. A corruption chief flung out in the cold. A grinning national police commissioner with a ruthless agenda. Merciless, and courageous, laywers and prosecutors manoeuvring between the conmen, the gangsters, the feral opportunists and a certain ubiquitous druglord by the name of Glenn Agliotti.
Few have been able to comprehensively link them, and gain their trust. Wiener does both.
But it’s been an exhausting trip. With a big smile, she says she shouldn’t have tried it while planning a wedding and building a house. Yet she knew she was on the right track with her husband-to-be when he went with her to the scene of Lolly Jackson’s murder and held an umbrella over her head for a few hours while she did interviews and filed for Eye Witness News.
Wiener is the kind of young journalist many older, more experienced ones don’t quite get. The tail-end of Killing Kebble offers the best impression of what her world is like. She presents an enthralling series of tweets that passed between people like Agliotti, “Bad” Brad Wood and journalists and correctly says “that was the first time a court drama was played out almost entirely on Twitter”.
By the time the rest of us got to it, in radio news bulletins, on TV and sometimes only the next day in newspapers, those following Wiener already knew what had happened.
“This was the world’s most convoluted story. It juxtaposes Kebble’s moneyed lavishness and his largesse with a raw world that people are not privy to,” says Wiener.
“I wanted to do a Kebble book almost immediately (he died), but I quickly realised the time wasn’t right. A lot of evidence had not been led when I first thought about doing it, and a lot of interesting people had not yet testified, and I think I was also a bit too young.
“But as the time and the trials and investigations went on, and I was following them all and getting to know the characters better, I felt more confident. The story was really telling itself. It was becoming important to study the corridors of power and what was growing under Mbeki’s regime, where state agencies were being abused.
“All of that leads us into the nexus… and I was very quickly beginning to realise that the story was not about the actual murder at all, or even Kebble himself, but about everything else.”
Wiener was crafting her last words almost as Judge Kgomo delivered his not-unexpected verdict in Agliotti’s murder trial at the end of last year. He was set free.
In the judge’s finding lay the clarity that journalists like Wiener had long seen coming. The decision to prosecute Agliotti alone was taken by the team that the current head of the national directorate of Public Prosecutions, Menzi Simelane, had replaced. And the men Judge Kgomo singled out – the original advocate, Gerrie Nel, and detective Andrew Leask – had been at the centre of the vicious political battle that is at the core of Wiener’s book.
The section 204 indemnity that the original team had given to Kebble’s former security man, Clinton Nassif, who turned state witness, as well as Kebble’s shooters Schultz, McGurk and Smith, was at the heart of Judge Kgomo’s verdict. And it is this that Wiener also cleverly unpacks.
As the judge said, his impression was that “this case played second fiddle to the prosecution of former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi”. Selebi was arrested after Agliotti, but tried before him. Wiener lifted every stone to see what scurried out.
“I honestly didn’t realise what a taxing process it was,” she says. “There had to be loyalty and trust for me to be able to convince the players to talk to me. I had to cultivate relationships. It was like a dance.”
The most difficult aspect of writing, Wiener says, was that once she really got going, she received “a collection of versions, a spectrum of versions”, and each was “very emotive”. Interestingly, Agliotti assumed he would be the central focus of the book. That did not happen, although his story is vital to the entire mess.
Wiener, in turn, had to immerse herself in the “overt meddling” that swirled around the druglord. The fundamental lack of principle had to be deftly woven in, and her job was to unpick everything, “the nuance, the detail”.
Yet of all the mystery, drama, secret dialogue and urgency inside Killing Kebble, the best parts surround the shooters. And when they admit to Wiener that their indemnity was “like winning the lottery”, that instantly becomes most memorable and – very likely – the point.
“These are rogues, but these were also men who had no direction taught to them. The legal argument is hard work, it’s dense, it’s time-consuming. But their private stories, where they came from, were something else. That, for me, was the nature of what it means to be a journalist. I always wanted the bang-bang stuff, but writing like this is not that… You have to unlock people’s lives, and that is tough.”