ANC Death Knell for Law Enforcement Success Story
BYLINE: Deon de Lange
Scorpions are active hunters.
They chase their prey in a short, furious dash, employing a sublime combination of venom and brute force to overpower their victims. Then they eat their kill head first.
So it has been with the local law- enforcement variety of scorpions formally known as the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO).
Remember those first television images? Zippy black cars with the menacing red scorpion logo emblazoned across the bonnet. Stern-faced and well-armed officers raiding the home of some white-collar lowlife, while plain-clothed accountant and prosecutor types loaded boxes of evidence in the boot.
The Scorpions, as they became popularly known, were a far cry from the rust-bucket vangwa South Africans had come to associate with law enforcement - and mouth-watering television news drama to boot.
Less than 10 years after this unit was established - and amid much controversy - the ANC has rung its death knell. The DSO is to be disbanded by June, and its investigators divvied up into the SA Police Service (SAPS).
Though officially launched by Thabo Mbeki, then the deputy president, at a public gathering in Gugulethu in 1999, it was only in January 2001 that the DSO's enabling legislation - the amended National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Act - finally came into operation. Its mandate broadly stated that the unit should focus on people "who commit and profit from organised crime".
Mbeki implied at the launch that the DSO would also look at organised crime within the ranks of the SAPS. Great is the irony, then, that the unit ended up investigating none other than national Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi - and that Mbeki is seen to have intervened on his top cop's behalf.
Initially, the DSO enjoyed massive public support as it pursued high-profile and complex networks of corporate and public fraudsters, drug kingpins, smugglers and racketeers. Its aggressive media strategy fuelled the image of a ruthless crime-busting operation.
Opposition parties were at first sceptical, and some accused Mbeki of creating his own personal police force. But by applying a unique strategy of teaming up investigators, analysts and prosecutors from the start of an investigation (the so-called troika approach), the DSO soon achieved an enviable conviction rate of more than 85% - with a personnel capacity of only 65% - and won most of the sceptics over.
By the end of 2006, the DSO had made 1 891 arrests, finalised 1 305 investigations and seized more than R1 billion worth of contraband.
Perhaps prophetically, the DSO's first boss, Frank Dutton, had resigned by the time the unit became fully operational in 2001. Percy Sonn came and went and, after months of uncertainty, Leonard McCarthy was appointed to lead the DSO in April 2003.
Three months into the job, McCarthy found himself in the middle of a political earthquake. In the course of an ongoing investigation into the controversial arms deal, it became known the DSO was investigating the possible involvement of then-Deputy President Jacob Zuma.
Then the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP), Bulelani Ngcuka, made the astounding announcement that, although there was prima facie evidence against Zuma, he would not be prosecuted.
The political ramifications of this comment were enormous and haunt the DSO to this day. Critics often raise this as proof of a political conspiracy against Zuma. Ngcuka resigned in July 2004 after being cleared of allegations that he was an apartheid-era spy. He was replaced by Vusi Pikoli.
Meanwhile, the NPA successfully prosecuted Zuma's friend and financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, who is serving a sentence for fraud and corruption.
In finding Shaik guilty, Judge Hilary Squires was reported to have found that Shaik and Zuma had "a generally corrupt relationship", causing Mbeki to fire Zuma as deputy president of the country. …