Scorpions, Hawks ... what beast is next?
In a surprising move the ANC’s highest decision-making body between national conferences resolved over the weekend that the government must “urgently establish a permanent multidisciplinary agency to deal with all cases of white-collar crime, organised crime and corruption”.
One inconspicuous line in a statement filled with anti-corruption rhetoric was decidedly understated given the weight of its implications. This is a huge decision by the party’s national executive committee.
The unofficial word when those who attended the meeting were asked what it all means was that the new agency would be like the Scorpions, which, given our history, is no small deal.
After all, it was the ANC that resolved more than a decade ago that the Scorpions should be disbanded, a move that is today recognised as one of the main causes of the decimation of SA’s criminal justice system.
Let’s step back to 2005. Then ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma was fighting corruption allegations related to the infamous arms deal, which saw his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, convicted for eliciting a bribe on behalf of Zuma.
In June 2005 then president Thabo Mbeki sacked Zuma after he was implicated in Shaik’s trial. The sting of the Scorpions, a crack multidisciplinary law enforcement agency housed in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), was felt specifically by Zuma in August, when they raided his home in Johannesburg.
More than two years later the so-called Zumanami broke at the ANC’s national elective conference in Polokwane. Zuma was elected president and the party resolved to disband the highly successful unit, which was hitting senior politicians where it hurt.
The ANC resolution came to fruition in January 2009, when then president Kgalema Motlanthe approved the legislation that disbanded the Scorpions.
It was replaced by the new Directorate of Priority Crimes, known as the Hawks. The independence of the new directorate was soon the subject of litigation, in which the Constitutional Court found that the structure of the Hawks was not sufficient for independence.
Over the years fears that the Hawks would be politically abused became a reality, while its capacity remains sorely lacking. Corruption has since become ingrained in the ANC’s fibre. With the exception of Zuma, no senior politician has so far made it to the dock to face criminal charges.
For this the ANC can blame only itself. It mounted a crusade against the Scorpions and against high-profile law enforcement officials who tried to do their jobs during Zuma’s almost decade in office.
The likes of former Hawks head Anwa Dramat, Gauteng Hawks head Shadrack Sibiya and Robert McBride, former head of police watchdog Ipid, were all persecuted.
The NPA was politically abused for years, changing heads so rapidly that not a single one has ever finished their term of office.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has made stabilising and strengthening these agencies a goal of his presidency since taking office in February 2018. Much has been done, such as appointing advocates Godfrey Lebeya and Shamila Batohi as new heads at the Hawks and NPA respectively.
Ramaphosa went further in 2019 by establishing an investigating directorate in the NPA, led by Hermione Cronje, to look into crimes related to state capture, among others. While the unit was an important step, the model was decidedly different from the way the Scorpions worked, relying on the co-operation of other agencies.
The Scorpions model brought all role players under the same roof and removed the silos between the different agencies to form a single independent unit. Given that SA’s law enforcement agencies were themselves victims of state capture, it is no surprise progress in prosecutions has been agonisingly slow.
But the pressure cooker that has up to now contained public anger seems about to explode just over a year before the next local government elections, as new corruption allegations come to the fore in the middle of a global pandemic.
The ANC is trying to throw the kitchen sink at corruption, but whether the public will believe its lofty promises is open to question.