Life after the Scorpions

It is official: the short life of the Scorpions is over and it is only a matter of time before the doors to the unit’s offices are locked and the keys handed over to acting police chief Tim Williams.

The unit has been on life support for some time, as documents released with this week’s medium-term budget policy statement made clear. They cited poor staff morale and a near 50% vacancy rate for the unit’s recent under­performance. The decision to switch off the oxygen ends an extra­ordinary 10-month chapter. Never before has the ruling party been so hell-bent on pushing through legislation for purely opportunistic reasons, primarily to avenge the investigation and prosecution of its senior members, including its president, Jacob Zuma.

Like all government departments the Scorpions had its troubles and challenges, but we can think of a number of bodies in need of more urgent attention, including the woeful internal complaints directorate of the police.

The replacement directorate for priority crime investigation (DPCI) has a number of flaws. Foremost is its lack of formal independence — the Scorpions operated outside the South African Police Service and could investigate not only the police, but those areas the police preferred to avoid. A second major fault is the elimination from the DPCI’s legislation of the Scorpions’ successful model of investigation, which combined prosecutorial, investigative and analytical expertise. Although provision is made for the involvement of prosecutors in investigations, no longer will a team of super sleuths, lawyers and analysts be able to chase sophisticated criminals from under one roof.

But the situation could have been worse. Were it not for the efforts of people such as deputy prosecutions boss Willie Hofmeyr, criminologists, opposition parties and citizen Bob Glenister, who persisted with their demands for a specialised crime-fighting unit, we might not even have the DPCI.

Significant victories were scored: provision is made for cooperation with the National Prosecuting Authority, a retired judge will handle all complaints about and within the DPCI and the police boss will be assisted in making decisions about the unit by top-level government officials from, among others, the NPA, SARS and treasury. The unit is also empowered to fight serious corruption as part of its mandate to curb organised crime. This should be commended and encouraged. Crucially, the legislation safeguards investigations currently on the books of the Scorpions, including those into Zuma, police boss Jackie Selebi and the arms deal.

That provision must now be honoured in spirit, not just in letter — the same investigators have to be allowed to complete their work and given adequate resources. The ANC made this law, it must now let it take its course without fear, favour or prejudice.

Mbeki must make way
Thabo Mbeki’s fragile victory in achieving a framework settlement for Zimbabwe seems to be unravelling. If it was not clear before, it is now resoundingly obvious: a new mediator should be appointed to drive the process quickly to its conclusion.

This is not, we stress, a middle-finger salute to Mbeki’s efforts, it is a recognition of the facts. Mbeki is no longer head of state of the most important country in the region and does not have the support of his own political party. It is a simple fact that he lacks leverage.

Robert Mugabe has always viewed Mbeki as his defender-in-chief and has repeatedly taken advantage of Mbeki’s willingness to tolerate his backsliding. He is treating the former president now with even less respect — and undermining the agreement.

Morgan Tsvangirai, of course, has always argued that Mbeki is not an honest broker in the crisis and he too is making things needlessly difficult with his “principled” refusal to travel.

The travel saga suggests both men are willing to put the process at risk. A call from Mugabe to the passport office would have been enough to get Tsvangirai a new passport and Tsvangirai’s refusal to use emergency travel documents looked like an attempt to damage a process he doesn’t fully believe in. That said, Tsvangirai is right to insist on a new passport; the incident shows what little power he will wield in the new set-up. If the bureaucracy that he is nominally heading can’t give him a passport, what will he be able to get it to do?

South Africa has allocated R300-million of taxpayers’ money to help save Zimbabwe’s agriculture season, but will hand it over to a multiparty government only. This windfall may come too late, with the first rains already falling. But it is time for more robust action from President Kgalema Motlanthe, the Southern African Development Community and the United Nations.

A new mediator, with the authority to knock heads together, is critical to the credibility of the process. Mbeki need not be excluded — he could form part of a team, as suggested by the Movement for Democratic Change, or lend his expertise to a new broker.

With conditions worsening in Zimbabwe there is no time to spare Mbeki’s feelings. Motlanthe and ANC president Jacob Zuma must use their influence to push the negotiations forward. Mbeki must make way for others who can finish the job.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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