14 February 2005

South Africa: Top-Level Probe Into Scorpions

Johannesburg — PRESIDENT Thabo Mbeki said yesterday he would appoint a commissioner to look into the future of the Scorpions, casting a long shadow over the future of the elite crime-fighting unit.

Mbeki told SABC TV last night that "in reality the Scorpions are a police unit". He said the commissioner would look into the relationship between the Scorpions, the police and the National Intelligence Agency.

The announcement is likely to add to uncertainty for the unit, which has faced a string of resignations, most notably that of its chief, Bulelani Ngcuka, last year.

The unit has also faced a welter of criticism from political and business figures who claim it has dragged its feet on some investigations and pursued others motivated by a vendetta.

While Mbeki was fulsome in his praise of the police in his state of the nation address last Friday, analysts said it was telling that he did not once refer directly to the Scorpions.

He said yesterday that the Scorpions had been based on a structure "borrowed" from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and that government needed to examine its relationship with SA's other security agencies.

"We need a commissioner to have a close look (at the Scorpions) ... (and) ... its relationship with other security agencies."

Mbeki's announcement comes more than a year after he first raised the possibility of the Scorpions being integrated into the police service.

Anton du Plessis of the Institute for Security Studies said the Scorpions could not be integrated into the police as the unit was presently constituted.

Instead government would either have to change the constitution or dismantle the unit, made up of prosecutors, analysts and investigators.

"In terms of the constitution, government can't move the Scorpions into the police service as they are currently structured. It would have to leave the prosecutors behind, meaning that the Scorpions would lose one of its unique strengths."

The Scorpions were "still a young organisation. Government needs to give them a chance."

The Democratic Alliance (DA) said Mbeki's announcement was symptomatic of infighting in the African National Congress and accused him of trying to hide behind a commissioner instead of acting against elements trying to bring the unit down.

"It would be inappropriate to move the Scorpions now as that would come against the background of Travelgate, the Shaik trial and Ngcuka's resignation," DA justice spokeswoman Sheila Camerer said.

Mbeki's spokesperson, Bheki Khumalo, said Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla would appoint the commissioner "as soon as possible".

"The commissioner will look at the relationship between the Scorpions and the police, where the Scorpions should be placed and what their role should be."

Khumalo said Mabandla and her cabinet colleagues in the justice cluster would draw up the commissioner's terms of reference and set the timeframe.

He said this would not be a judicial commission.

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