Mandy Wiener: Breathing life into the Scorpions: The right thing to do but a mighty challenge
Cyril Ramaphosa's announcement to create the Scorpions 2.0 is the most exciting development in the fight against corruption in a decade. But making it a reality is going to be a mighty challenge, writes Mandy Wiener.
It was in the mud at the ANC's 52nd conference in Polokwane that the death knell of the Scorpions was tolled. It was a political decision more than anything else.
The unit had been too successful in going after high profile politicians who had become corrupt. At one point it had a 94% hit rate and that wasn't going to fly in an era of state capture when those in office were eating the money meant for the poor.
The Scorpions had also made mistakes. It was heavily criticised for picking and choosing cases, deciding only to go after those which were sure wins. This gave the impression that they were politically motivated, only selecting those targets that suited them.
As an example, the decision to pursue former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi and cut deals with the Kebble killers and Glenn Agliotti was massively controversial. The Hollywoodesque style raids and flashing lights and branded cars were a crowd pleaser but were frowned upon by some who thought the hype ill placed.
But the fundamental reason that the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO) was killed off was those spy tapes, Leonard McCarthy and revelations that the unit was being manipulated for political and personal agendas.
Now Cyril Ramaphosa is attempting to breath new life into the Scorpions.
He's announced a new investigative directorate that will fall under Shamila Batohi at the NPA, to probe evidence that has come out of the state capture commission and other inquiries. While it may not be called the Scorpions, it essentially is the Scorpions 2.0. Batohi watched the State of the Nation Address from the public gallery in the National Assembly, sitting next to Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis, as the president affirmed her authority and independence as NDPP.
The reason the Scorpions was so successful in court was because the DSO followed the 'troika' principle. The unit was intelligence-driven and prosecution-led. The system saw prosecutors, investigators and intelligence operators working closely under a single command. This streamlined approach ensured the correct evidence was collected and when cases went to trial, prosecutors had the best possible ammunition to secure a conviction.
This approach means the prosecutors at the NPA don't have to rely on a completely separate organisation like the Hawks to do the investigating for them. It also means that investigators are isolated from any political interference at the SAPS and have the independence and authority to do their work without pressure or meddling. It also means they can get the job done properly at a time when the Hawks are visibly floundering, still recovering from the assault of Berning Ntlemeza and a deliberate campaign to eviscerate it.
Ramaphosa's announcement is the most exciting development in the fight against corruption in a decade. It has been roundly welcomed by the public. But making it a reality is going to be a mighty challenge.
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The problem is one of capacity. The NPA is experiencing a 19% vacancy rate on prosecutors alone. Last year its leadership told Parliament that it needed R761m to fill over 1 000 vacancies including 244 posts which were deemed critical.
The bulk of the original Scorpions have left the NPA, pushed out by politics and disillusionment. Almost the entire Operation Bad Guys team which convicted Selebi has moved on. Most have followed Gerrie Nel to AfriForum.
Many of the original investigators moved over to the Hawks which was supposed to fulfill the anti-corruption function left vacant by the demise of the Scorpions, but failed dismally. A great many of those investigators have gone into the private sector, to audit firms or forensic companies. As an example, there is no longer one forensic accountant at the Hawks today which makes unravelling a scheme like Steinhoff or VBS basically impossible.
The mission now is to get good, qualified, capable people back into the NPA. This doesn't only mean ex-Scorpions, but young, ambitious candidates who are eager to stick their hands up and say "Thuma Mina".
It's about reinvigorating the appetite to join the civil service and fight corruption from the inside and hold power to account. This is a chance to make working for the state sexy again – for young lawyers, investigators and experts to gain experience and refine their skills like so many others did in the early years of the DSO. We have to rebuild the capacity that we have lost.
As we all reel from the evidence that has been seeping out of the various inquiries and commissions underway, the country is desperate for action. But more than action, we want justice. We don't only want arrests, we want convictions. A new Scorpions with the best capacity on board is our very best hope of getting that.
- Wiener is a specialist reporter for News24.
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