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Wednesday, September 1, 1999 Published at 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK

World: Africa

Scorpions target South African crime

Crimes such as hijacking and burglary take up the bulk of police time

By Africa correspondent Jeremy Vine

It sounds like it's been named with a television spin-off in mind - perhaps an American series along the lines of Starsky & Hutch or Serpico - but the new South African police unit known as The Scorpions have higher priorities than glamour.

They need results.

Increasingly worried that the police are so tied up with day-to-day crimes like hijacking and burglary, the government has set up its own version of the FBI.

[ image: Johannesburg is hit hard by the country's crime problem]
Johannesburg is hit hard by the country's crime problem
Long title - the Directorate of Special Investigations. Short title - Scorpions.

The move follows an announcement by President Thabo Mbeki in June that "a special and adequately staffed and equipped investigative unit will be established urgently, to deal with all national priority crime, including police corruption".

So the unit will hunt the criminals at the very top:

  • The ones whose profits run into millions and who do everything they can to make sure their activities are untraceable.
  • Crime supremos who organise the cash-in-transit heists that have made bank employees fear for their lives every day of the week.
  • Officials in the public services who abuse their power to make money for themselves through backhanders.
  • The burgeoning mafia-style syndicates who smuggle and kill to make their profits.
The Minister of Safety and Security, Steve Tshwete, said: "The agency will make all the difference in the fight against crime.

"The money we get from criminals forfeiting their profits of crime will go back into the coffers of law enforcement to fight crime further. So the criminals will be helping us to fight themselves."

There will be 2,000 staff in the Scorpions - and they_ll be hand-picked, Tshwete says, with the best police, financial, forensic and intelligence experts all working together.

Countless members of the public, as well as a junior member of the FBI in the United States, rang in offering their services while the unit was being set up.

'Pie in the sky'

The big worry is that the rest of the police force, which is underpaid, overworked and exposed to almost unbelievable levels of danger, will suffer a further drop in morale as it realises the most serious crimes have been taken out of its hands.

The potential for turf wars will need to be constantly monitored.

But the Scorpions will be doing a vital task. A recent estimate suggested 300,000 wanted criminals are at large in and around South Africa.

The police who are chasing them have got their work cut out; the new unit, on the other hand, will be able to attack crime more strategically.

There is already an air of unreality about the predictions of just how much it can do - the idea, as one newspaper said, that it will "stamp out crime" will remain pie in the sky until the first major league criminal is behind bars, and the key turns loudly in the prison door.

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