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Last Updated: Friday, 1 February 2008, 03:15 GMT
Sting in the tail for SA Scorpions?
By Nick Ericsson
Editor, BBC Focus on Africa magazine

Suspended South African police commissioner Jackie Selebi's court appearance on Friday on charges of corruption could spell the end of the elite Scorpions crime fighting unit - or its finest hour.

South Africa's national Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi
The court will decide if Jackie Selebi's hands are clean
Whatever happens to Mr Selebi, it is the moment of reckoning for a precariously independent unit that has stepped on many toes.

The FBI-style Scorpions unit, officially known as the Directorate of Special Operations, works closely with prosecutors in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

It has always been fiercely independent of the South African Police Service (SAPS) but the Scorpions' pursuit of the police chief has led to a new low in relations - perversely in a country with such high crime rates.

Along the way it has also become linked to two of the more tumultuous episodes in the 96-year history of the African National Congress: the succession battle for the party's presidency and creeping corruption in the ANC and government.

The Scorpions was set up to tackle high-profile crime and it has brought to book many of the high and mighty who have been caught with their hands in the public cookie jar.

The organised crime unit has reportedly made close to 2,000 arrests and finalised 1,500 investigations, while seizing more than $500 million-worth of contraband.

But success has bred hostility.


That Mr Selebi is in court at all, after much interference from the highest echelons of government, is a victory of sorts for the organised crime-fighting body.

In January, Selebi loyalists in the SAPS and in government were behind the arrest on corruption charges of Gerrie Nel - the man spearheading the Scorpions' investigation into the former police commissioner.

2000: Appointed police commissioner
2004: Named head of Interpol
Admits to "friendship" with self-confessed drug smuggler Glenn Agliotti
Tried and failed to halt the Scorpions' investigation through the courts
Accused of corruption and defeating the ends of justice by accepting money and gifts in order to protect suspects from prosecution
Denies all charges

Twenty armed officers were employed for the early morning raid on Mr Nel's home, such was the threat he was supposed to pose to national security.

He was subsequently released without charge.

There are many in the ANC who say that the Scorpions has been too liberal with its stings and want revenge.

The ruling party has demanded that the Scorpions be disbanded by June and incorporated into the police force.

That would be two months before ANC leader Jacob Zuma is due to go on trial on charges of corruption and fraud.

Those charges were laid just days after Mr Zuma defeated Mr Mbeki in a bitter contest for the ANC leadership.

Mr Zuma's allies say the Scorpions are being used by Mr Mbeki's allies to prevent him from assuming the presidency of the country.


Some fear that an influential faction of the ruling party (and those who look set to be in government come President Mbeki's departure in 2009) is trying desperately to protect its own against one of the most effective crime-fighting units post-apartheid South Africa has produced.

The issue of political bias hangs very strongly within the body politic on the Scorpions
Sipho Seepe
Political analyst
There could be something in this analysis.

The respected Mail & Guardian newspaper says that one-third of the ANC's National Executive Committee (NEC) have been, or are currently, under investigation for some kind of criminal activity.

Former President Nelson Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, gained the most votes for an NEC post despite her convictions for fraud and kidnapping.

Some suggest that the ANC is now trying to prevent the Scorpions from prying even deeper into their affairs.

One of the few things that the party's two centres of power seem to have in common is that the Scorpions have proved to be a convenient scapegoat.

Even outside ANC circles, there are some who are less than impressed with what they see as the presidency's political interference in the Scorpions.

"The issue of political bias hangs very strongly within the body politic on the Scorpions," said analyst Sipho Seepe.

The unit has been punched, kicked, spat on, attacked and - perhaps worst of all - ignored by those in charge and those with eyes on the country's throne in 2009.

Moral high ground

NPA head Vusi Pikoli was suspended last year by the president for no apparent reason other than he was investigating Mr Selebi, who is friends with drug-dealing mafia boss Glenn Agliotti.

Scorpions logo
The Scorpions are South Africa's answer to the FBI

Officially Mr Pikoli was removed for not consulting enough with Justice Minister Bridget Mbandla before taking a decision to charge Mr Selebi.

But the NPA's independence from government oversight is guaranteed in the constitution.

Much then rests on the outcome of Mr Selebi's case.

If transparent justice can be seen to be done by the South African public and charges brought against Mr Selebi are not tainted by executive interference, then the Scorpions may survive.

Political analyst Steven Friedman points out that its dissolution would need public interest and participation in order to change the law - a constitutional requirement of which Mr Zuma's inner sanctum seem unaware (section 59, if they want to look it up).

Amid all the murky politics and dirty tricks, one thing is increasingly clear.

The ANC's fall from the moral high ground it used to occupy has less to do with a suspended police commissioner and party president facing criminal charges and more with the way in which those in power - and those seeking power - have responded to the Scorpions' anti-corruption drive.

SA's controversial police chief
11 Jan 08 |  Africa

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