Scorpions: Sting in the Tail
Carlin, John, The Independent (London, England)
Problem: containing crime in a country with the worst peacetime statistics for murder, rape and robbery in the world when your police force is overrun, incompetent and corrupt. Solution: advertise for university graduates, no experience required, to inaugurate an "elite" police unit whose honesty, zeal and patriotic sense of duty will make the streets safe once again. John Carlin meets South Africa's answer to the Untouchables
A young woman driver is kidnapped, taken to the township of Alexandria and gang-raped for five hours. A pregnant woman is shot in the stomach in an attempted car hijacking in a Johannesburg suburb.
These are the kinds of stories South Africans read in their newspapers every day in a country where the murder rate (aside from that of Colombia, which is racked by civil war) is the highest in the world, nine times per capita higher than in the United States; where the incidence of rape is the highest in the world by far - six sexual crimes are reported every hour; where the odds of one's house being broken into in the course of a year is one in five; where the activity of international drug syndicates and money-laundering mafias is completely out of control.
The majority of crimes never reach the ears of the police. Surveys show that people either have no faith in the ability of the police to solve them or, worse still, believe the police to be so corrupt, so closely involved with the criminals, that by reporting crimes they increase the risk of being victimised again.
With nothing to lose, the Government is now taking dramatic action. It put an ad in the papers for applicants to join a force modelled on the "Untouchables", the squeaky-clean detectives led by the legendary Elliot Ness to combat crime in the US, during the Prohibition era. The minimum requirements to join the Scorpions - so named as one of the Scorpions' chiefs explained, "because a scorpion can bring down an elephant" - were a university degree and the ability to speak at least four of South Africa's 11 official languages. Of 7,000 applicants, the vast majority of them black, 5,500 met the requirements.
Selection of the final 100 recruits was based on integrity and brains, revolutionary in terms of the old South African police, before democracy replaced apartheid in 1994. The chief mission of special units then was to keep the black population down. The task of the units, the Scorpions of their day, was to torture and assassinate the white regime's political opponents.
The task of today's Scorpions, who might be described as South Africa's first post-liberation police force, is to acquire the trust of the population as a whole, a novel objective in this country. Then they intend to go out and win the war against crime.
What are the chances of them achieving the success on which the vast majority of fear-ridden South Africans are banking? Will they be "feared by the criminals and loved by the people", as their motto has it? Or are they merely a despairing symptom of the Government's inability to address a problem that is not only ruining the lives of South Africans but severely undermining tourism and investment? Or is it that when President Thabo Mbeki came up with the idea of creating the Scorpions, he was suffering from a bout of Quixotic delusion?
QUIXOTIC MIGHT, at first glance, be the word to describe Sam, one of the first batch of recruits enlisted to take up arms in the Scorpion cause. Quixotic, at least, in the sense that he is pos- sessed of an almost chivalrous sense of mission, in an age in which idealism is unfashionable and the profit motive rules.
If Sam were a more thoroughly modern young man he would be making commercial capital out of his status as a highly educated, supremely driven black South African. A young black man with a master's degree in molecular biology could deliver prosperity to his family on a scale unimaginable during the apartheid years - never mind the money- making possibilities that might have opened up abroad, had Sam accepted the offer of a scholarship to study for a doctorate at an American university. …