Two weeks ago, the parliament of South Africa -- essentially an arm of the ruling African National Congress party -- voted to abolish the Directorate of Special Operations and fold their jurisdiction into the work of the National Police. The move surprised no one but has angered many. Over the course of its nine year existence, the independent crime fighting unit of the National Prosecuting Authority, colorfully known as the Scorpions, has brought charges against current ANC head -- and presidential heir-apparent -- Jacob Zuma, as well as other high-profile ANC-supported figures such as former National Police Chief Jackie Selebi and Winnie Mandela.
Critics argue that many of the Scorpion's investigations were selective and (especially the Zuma probe) politically motivated. Defenders claim that the Scorpions were among the few institutions that kept South Africa from becoming a kleptocrat's paradise. But given that South Africa has some of the worst set of crime statistics in the world, it seems odd that the country's lawmakers would choose this moment to eradicate the Scorpions by blending them into the far less effective National Police.
In a recent poll conducted by TNS Research Surveys, almost 60 percent of South Africans contacted believe that the Scorpions should be retained. Various lawsuits have been launched on their behalf, but the die is cast. The Scorpions' former boss, Leonard McCarthy, has already been recruited by the anti-corruption unit of the World Bank (after being labeled a subversive by members of the ANC's executive committee), and all members of the unit have been asked to either interview for other jobs within the police and civil-service or to hand in their resignations. To no one's surprise, many members are simply walking away in disgust.
In a sense, the fall of the Scorpions also reflects the fall of Thabo Mbeki. In 1999, Mbeki was viewed as a cosmopolitan reformer. The creation of the Scorpions was one of the most potent symbols of his desire to change the direction of South Africa's drift towards criminal anarchy. His view of the unit changed, however, when former Police Chief Jackie Selebi, his friend and supporter, was investigated last year for alleged ties with organized crime figures.
Nevertheless, Mbeki launched an independent evaluation of whether the Scorpions should remain apart from the police. The Khampepe Report, named after the judge who headed the investigation, concluded that the Scorpions needed reform, not disbandment. It suggested that officers be selected more carefully and that the Scorpions be kept out of matters of state security and intelligence gathering.
The report was finished several years ago but only released to the public recently, too late to save the Scorpions and perhaps too late to allow the South African people to decide who they want as their watchdogs.
It seems increasingly as if the ANC's goal is to make itself indistinguishable from the government of South Africa, even though it is technically just another political party. By claiming the mantle of symbol of the "people," it has implied through its actions -- if not its legislative agenda as yet -- that any efforts to challenge its authority are unpatriotic, subversive and politically motivated. In the United States, arguments such as these would be met with derision. In South Africa, where the political landscape is completely dominated by one party, they are a hammer by which the ANC dominates its critics.
Published in World Politics Review, Nov. 5, 2008