The National Assembly has voted by a margin to close down the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) Directorate of Special Operations (DSO) , known by its nickname the Scorpions.
The lower house of Parliament passed the National Prosecuting Authority Amendment Bill [B23-2008] and the South African Police Service Amendment Bill [B30-2008] last night with 252 African National Congress (ANC) and African People’s Convention MPs voting in favour and 63 MPs against.
The two laws now go to the National Council of Provinces for concurrence. The Bills give effect to a resolution taken at the ANC`s 52nd National Conference at Polokwane in December to disband the crime-fighting unit. The DSO will now be replaced by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI), situated in the police.
The Scorpions were born from a justice system reform a decade ago that saw the abolition of a system of regional attorneys general and the creation of a single, national prosecuting authority. To better fight organised crime in particular, the NPA would include its own cadre of detectives – and the Scorpions were born.
Opposition parties opposed the move at the time, citing serious concerns with the creation of the NPA and the establishment of the post of the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP). They argued this was an over-centralisation of power.
Although often described as SA`s “FBI” (the US Justice Department`s Federal Bureau of Investigation), the central idea behind the Scorpions – the teaming of prosecutors and investigators had more in common with the television series “Law and Order”.
The unit was controversial from the start, with the police complaining that it had poached their best and brightest by delivering better pay and working conditions. The latter included having choice in what cases to investigate and which to leave to the police`s overworked detectives. These would often bitterly claim that the Scorpions would wait for them to do all the legwork and then take over the case at the last minute to secure convictions.
This was, however, not the public perception, and many came to see the Scorpions as the superior agency.
The propensity to cherry-pick may have led to the unit`s undoing. One of the cases it chose to investigate was that involving allegations of wrongdoing involving two local subsidiaries of French defence giant Thales and SA`s then-deputy president, Jacob Zuma.
The allegations were in part that Thales had sought to bribe Zuma to protect them from any investigation into the 1999 Strategic Defence Package that saw SA buy four frigates, three submarines, 50 aircraft and 30 helicopters. Thales had been involved with the frigate programme, Project Sitron.
President Thabo Mbeki, who as deputy president had led the SA SDP negotiating team, sacked Zuma in June 2005. After a period in the wilderness, Zuma mounted an insurgency within the party that culminated in Polokwane where he ousted Mbeki as party leader and where his supporters replaced Mbeki`s in all key ANC positions.
A key plank in his campaign was the contention that the investigation was part of a political conspiracy to neutralise him and set him up as an arms deal scapegoat.
His followers by Polokwane believed the Scorpions were a key participant in this plot and that the teaming of prosecutors and investigators, far from assisting the fight against crime was now assisting in its commissioning.
The Scorpions, in the words of the Congress of SA Trade Unions – “contradicted the necessary separation of functions between investigating crime and prosecuting the criminals,” a key opposition concern in 1999.
That concern was not in evidence yesterday when the Assembly went to vote.
The Star newspaper notes this morning that Inkatha Freedom Party MP Koos van der Merwe slammed the vote as “a day that will live on in infamy”.
“The decision to kill the Scorpions is reckless political expediency to protect ANC leaders and members from criminal investigation and possible prosecution,” he charged.
Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille warned the ANC that “South Africans are not stupid” and would not be misled about the ANC’s “true motives” for disbanding the unit.
The Democratic Alliance`s Dianne Kohler Barnard said the decision rode roughshod over the finding of a Judicial Commission of Inquiry headed by Judge Sisi Khampepe to keep the Scorpions and keep it in the NPA.
In comments sent to the media she added the decision taken by 2500 Zuma supporters in Polokwane also flew in the face of “98 000 signatures and 7 978 written submissions” to the contrary.
Details of the new directorate remain sketchy and Kohler Barnard says Scorpions staff that include advocates, forensic auditors and specialist investigators, “one of whom ever wished to be in the police,” are unlikely to join the new body.
“Law enforcement agencies all over the world are utterly delighted that these experts are on the market and will no doubt snap them up,” she added. “The fact that the Director General of Justice toured the country telling Scorpions members that they would be allowed no promotion within the SAPS for the next five years has only fuelled their fears.”
In drumming up support for eliminating the Scorpions, the DA MP says, ANC supporters “came out en masse with the most preposterous, self-serving, statements imaginable. “I noted them carefully: ‘our women are still being raped – so scrap the Scorpions`; ‘our homes are still being broken into – so scrap the Scorpions`; ‘there is still child abuse – and trouble at the taxi ranks – so scrap the Scorpions`. I also noted that there was never a call to scrap the SAPS, which of course should have been dealing with these matters.
“Theatrical tones of disgust were used in describing the troika principle – with the prosecutor leading the investigators, which system results in such successes in court – despite the fact that exactly the same system is used, a lot less effectively, by the SAPS.
“One ANC branch head even claimed that Scotland Yard ran the Scorpions,” Kohler Barnard said.
“The ANC is still perpetuating the ‘single police force` determination argument – attempting by repetition to overrule both the Khampepe Commission and Constitutional Court dicta (Minister of Defence v Potsane 2002 (1) SA 1 which absolutely allow for different divisions to be established to protect this country.”
Attacks at the hearings on the “troika” principle aside, government says DCPI detectives and NPA prosecutors will still work together closely.
The vehicle making that possible may well be the Integrated Justice System, under construction since 1995 – even before the Scorpions were conceived.
National Prosecuting Authority acting CIO Marnus Steyn says this is a massively complex transversal “crime to time” business process reengineering scheme that, when completed, will give the appropriate people the appropriate information at the appropriate time to successfully prosecute crime, administer the courts and rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders.