ANC tries to ax elite crime fighters

Times Staff Writer

As a defense attorney in one of the world’s crime capitals, Sanele Mtshazo said his greatest asset was police bungling: In nearly every case, there was botched evidence or missing fingerprint, ballistics or DNA reports.

Often he ruefully watched someone he had defended walk free, and thought, “That one should have gone to jail.” Once, it was a man he thought had raped a child.

Feeling as though he was fighting on the wrong side, he switched after two years, becoming an investigator in the Scorpions, South Africa’s elite anti-crime task force, trained by the FBI and Scotland Yard.


But the ruling African National Congress, in particular party President Jacob Zuma and his allies, plans to dismantle the unit, which has investigated Zuma on corruption charges. Despite the Scorpions’ success in fighting corruption and organized crime, the ANC voted at its December conference that the unit should be dissolved and replaced with a police task force.

The decision came days after Zuma swept to power, and amid news he was about to be indicted. Zuma is heir apparent to succeed President Thabo Mbeki next year, but if convicted, he would not be allowed to lead the country.

Crime analysts see the ANC’s decision as a major blow in the fight against corruption.

“It would basically mean they would cease to exist. Anyone who says they are just moving them is not telling the truth, in my view,” said Jean Redpath, an independent crime analyst.

The Scorpions have stung many top ANC figures besides Zuma. Others include Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, who was put on extended leave after being charged with corruption, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and former ANC parliamentary whip Tony Yengeni, both convicted of fraud.

When launched in 1999, with crime rocketing, the Scorpions fired South Africa’s imagination. The force recruited professionals and graduates, many with multiple degrees. The first head of the federal investigative and prosecutorial unit, Frank Dutton, was lured back from Bosnia-Herzegovina where he was investigating war crimes for the United Nations.

The Scorpions zipped about in flashy white cars decorated with a large red scorpion logo and adopted Dutton’s slogan for the unit: “Loved by the people, feared by criminals, respected by peers.”

Inside the Scorpions, the atmosphere was idealistic and exhilarating.

In one of its first high-profile busts in 2000, the force broke up a drug ring and seized pills estimated to be worth about $29 million, more than the 500-employee unit’s annual budget. With an 85% conviction rate in often high-profile cases, it has won continuing public support.

The contrast with South Africa’s police -- overloaded, inefficient, poorly educated and often corrupt -- could not be sharper.

The key to the Scorpions’ success, according to analysts, is the unit’s team approach, with a prosecutor, investigator and analyst working together from the beginning of any investigation until the end, so that the evidence needed to prove a crime is never overlooked. Scorpions spokesman Tlali Tlali said the “troika” approach was unique to South Africa.

Scorpion senior manager Andrea Kasiram said, “From Day One, you sit with each other and work out what needs to be done. You have constant feedback.

“This process is so different from normal investigations and prosecutions in the South African criminal justice system used in various courts. I was a [conventional] prosecutor. That methodology doesn’t work. I know that methodology, I came from there,” said Kasiram, who has been a prosecutor for 12 years and at 37 is one of the youngest of the organization’s senior managers.

More than 90% of callers in a recent South African television station poll supported the Scorpions. In contrast, 48% of South Africans believe that most police are corrupt, and only 22% trust the police and military, according to polls. One survey of police showed that even the police did not trust the police: 92% of officers thought that corruption within the force is a serious problem.

Kasiram was one of the Scorpions’ early recruits. A policeman’s daughter in a small town in apartheid South Africa, she used to go to court with her father. “That’s the one I want to be,” she thought, looking at the prosecutor laying out a person’s crimes.

But in the murky chaos of the criminal justice system, putting crooks in jail turned out to be difficult. Often, as a conventional prosecutor, she had not received evidence from police that she needed.

The Scorpions, Kasiram said, work long hours, but love their jobs and are more often successful than police. According to Redpath, of 500,000 cases sent to prosecutors by police each year, about 200,000 are returned for want of evidence.

“When I get my conviction, I get immense joy from putting the correct facts before the court,” said Kasiram, a petite, pin-neat woman of Indian descent. “I’m a prosecutor and not a persecutor. I have to see that justice is done. That is my passion.”

When she started out, she said, crooks underestimated her. Once in lull between court hearings, a fellow sidled up before a big robbery case, and asked her how much it would take to make the case “disappear.” Kasiram was stunned. Taut with anger, she recalled, she threatened to call the police and sent the man scurrying, terrified, from the court.

Despite their success, the Scorpions have been plagued with controversy. Conspiracy theories made the rounds that they spied for foreign governments or promoted an apartheid-era “old guard.”

After the December ruling-party vote, the unit is seen by analysts as the first high-profile victim in a battle between two opposing ANC factions: the new party leadership -- the Zuma camp -- and President Mbeki’s faction, which still runs the government.

A parliamentary vote is still required to dismantle the unit, but the ANC has the numbers. Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula said this month that the unit would be dissolved and replaced by a “better” police unit.

Leading financial daily Business Day condemned the move in a front-page editorial: “Disgrace does not begin to describe the decision . . . to disband the Scorpions. It is hard to imagine the damage this action will do to our reputation as a sensible country.”

“There is a number of politicians who have a vested interest in seeing the demise of the Scorpions,” said Colm Allan of an independent analytical group monitoring government accountability. He said 18% to 20% of the ANC’s national executive committee, elected in December, has been investigated or prosecuted by the unit.

The new leadership wants the Scorpions gone by June, a degree of urgency that officials deny is linked to the beginning of Zuma’s corruption trial scheduled for August. Zuma’s allies have made ominous noises about “rotten apples” in the Scorpions.

The battle got nasty when Scorpions boss Gerrie Nel, who led the investigation of Police Commissioner Selebi, was arrested by police at his home last month on corruption charges, in what looked like a tit-for-tat arrest. Police, who ignored prosecutors’ warnings that they had no case, later had to release Nel.

Nel’s arrest followed Mbeki’s suspension of Scorpions director Vusi Pikoli in September when the unit issued search warrants against Selebi, a close ally of the president. Mbeki asserts that he knew nothing of the Selebi investigation, but the acting director of prosecutions, Mokotedi Mpshe, has sworn under oath that Pikoli kept Mbeki fully informed.

Though Mbeki’s position on the Scorpions is not fully clear, he has been widely reported in recent weeks to be trying to save the unit.

ANC officials say prosecutors and investigators should be kept separate. They argue that the constitution allows only one federal crime-fighting agency. Some contend that disbanding the Scorpions will lead to better coordination in fighting crime, and others say that the group’s investigations of ANC figures have been politically motivated.

But analysts are skeptical, warning that disbanding the Scorpions will send out a message that South Africa is not serious about fighting crime. The move ignores a 2006 independent judicial inquiry that recommended the Scorpions should remain independent of police and found no constitutional problem.

“I think it can only undermine the relatively positive image that South Africa had in terms of dealing with corruption and organized crime,” said Peter Gastrow of the independent Institute of Security Studies. “It leaves a very strong suspicion that there are key leadership figures in the ANC who want to remove the one body that has been targeting political figures as well as top businessmen.”