In its first major initiative under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, South Africa's ruling African National Congress has ordered the government of President Thabo Mbeki to dismantle the country's highly successful organized crime fighting unit, the Directorate of Special Operations, or Scorpions. Zuma and other high-profile individuals are facing trials this year as a consequence of investigations carried out by the Scorpions. In Johannesburg VOA's Delia Robertson takes a closer look at the Scorpions, the work they have done, and what the future may hold for South Africa without them.
The Scorpions was formed in January 2001, 16 months after President Mbeki promised the national legislature that the government would set up a squad to fight so-called priority crimes. Peter Gastrow, of the independent Institute for Security Studies says there was growing exasperation in the country at police failures in addressing a rising crime wave.
"One of the categories of crime which the police felt inadequate to address and which they didn't really understand, was a relative new category for South Africa, namely sophisticated organized crime, particularly trans-border and trans-national organized crime," said Gastrow.
The Scorpions were placed under the authority of the National Prosecuting Authority or NPA, a constitutionally-mandated body within the Department of Justice.
Early on, Scorpions recruits received intensive training from experienced foreign organizations such as Scotland Yard and the U.S. Federal Bureau for Investigation.
By South African policing standards, the conviction rate on cases investigated by the Scorpions appears spectacular, 95 percent in the 12-month period ending June 2007, with a similar record in previous years.
But analysts say the performance of the unit is difficult to compare with other policing units.
"They have bust and successfully prosecuted very, very complex cases emerging from the business sectors, political leaders, government officials; successful prosecutions which conventional police investigation I don't believe would have been able to solve," he added. "So in short, the overall risk for sophisticated organized crime has risen as a result of their interventions."
Despite their success, the unit has been surrounded by controversy.
Police officers, supported by their trade union, objected to the better salaries, training and working conditions than those received by ordinary police officers
And it was not too long before the unit was accused of being an agent of the apartheid government as well as a tool by President Mbeki to settle political scores.
A 2004 commission, headed by a retired judge, found the allegations of its connections with the apartheid government without merit. But, the allegations of the squad being used for political influence came to a head when it became clear that the Scorpions were investigating Jacob Zuma, who, at the time, was deputy president of the country. Zuma was fired from this post in 2005 after his legal advisor was convicted on charges of corruption which implicated him.
Shadrack Gutto, a constitutional and legal expert at the University of South Africa, says that despite the litany of such allegations about the Scorpions, none were ever proven.
"These remain unproven allegations, the mere fact that they are being shouted and repeated often does not turn them into facts or truth," said Gutto. "And indeed if somebody has such evidence and there is a matter before the court, then they should and they could have brought this already."
While many analysts note that the Scorpions are not without fault, Gastrow is one of many South Africans who say problems within the squad can be solved.
"But the question arises does that warrant the destruction of an institution; should one not rather see or explore the possibility of fixing it," said Gastrow. "I think it an important point, in any institution, obviously these things happen, far more serious incidents happen; they are then debated, discussed and one tries to fix it, rather than demolish and take the destructive course of doing away with it, without putting anything in its place."
The ANC's determination to get rid of the Scorpions has angered many South Africans who see it as an attempt to protect senior members of the new ANC leadership, including Jacob Zuma. Analyst Gutto agrees with this perception.
"Personally I do believe that there is good reason to suspect that the vigorous attempt to remove this is informed more, not by the fact of lack of lines of accountability, and so on; but rather in an attempt to remove the sting as it were and put it within the police force," continued Gutto. "And if this were to be done, it will send a very, very serious message out there to organized criminals that they have a field day , and impunity is also going to reign where particular important public figures may be protected against prosecution."
Opposition parties have warned they will do everything they can to prevent the dissolution of the Scorpions. Bantu Holomisa, leader of the United Democratic Movement, says his party is seeking to challenge the Scorpions' dissolution in the Constitutional Court.
"If they [the ANC] use their two-thirds majority to bull-doze this decision, then the UDM will be left with no other option but to seek a legal remedy. But the legal opinion which we are also seeking is whether we can not challenge this process before they come up with the amendment [to the law which founded the unit]. If we feel right now the rights of the citizen are being tampered with, there is nothing stopping us in filing an urgent application," he said.
The African National Congress says it is merely trying the align law enforcement agencies with the constitution which calls for a single police force. But constitutional lawyers argue that provision was originally intended to bring several apartheid-era police agencies under one roof. They add the constitution also includes a clause which allows the government to establish additional law enforcement agencies.
President Thabo Mbeki has not publicly commented on his party's demand except to say that he will act in accordance with the constitution.