South Africa's FBI Falls Victim to Politics The unit known as the Scorpions has broken up drug rings, apprehended diamond smugglers and investigated government corruption. But after fingering some of South Africa's most powerful people, the unit's days may be numbered.
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South Africa's FBI Falls Victim to Politics

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South Africa's FBI Falls Victim to Politics

South Africa's FBI Falls Victim to Politics

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. South Africa has gone through many changes since the end of apartheid in 1994. One is that as the country adjusts to this new era, all types of crime have increased. There is a crime-busting unit that's had success in battling the problem, but now in 2008, the government may shut it down. The unit named some powerful men as suspects in corruption probes. NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault has the latest report in her series on South Africa at the crossroads.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: If this were a movie, the saga of the Scorpions would be a nail-biting thriller featuring crime, corruption and interesting political struggles that could potentially wreak havoc on a young democracy. It wasn't always that way.

Mr. ADRIAAN BASSON (Investigative Reporter): They've caught big drug smugglers, diamond smugglers. They've infiltrated the drug scene in Johannesburg.

HUNTER-GAULT: Adriaan Basson is a prize-winning investigative reporter who has covered the Scorpions since they hit the streets.

Mr. BASSON: Cases in which I've sat, judges commended the Scorpions on the thorough work done and the speed of the investigations.

HUNTER-GAULT: The Scorpions unit was created to tackle white-collar and organized crime in a country with one of the highest crime rates in the world. The unit took cues from Scotland Yard and the FBI, creating a team that included prosecutors, investigators and analysts. It racked up an impressive record of convictions, on average more than 80 percent, far outpacing the police service. Then the unit started investigating leaders of the ruling African National Congress Party, and official sentiment changed.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

HUNTER-GAULT: During the ruling African National Party Congress in Polokwane, South Africa in December, members voted to disband the unit, a move critics say was payback.

Jacob Zuma is among those stung by the Scorpions in a corruption case in 2005, and President Thabo Mbeki fired him from his job as South Africa's deputy president.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

HUNTER-GAULT: But this was the exuberant response to Zuma's election as ANC Party president, defeating Mbeki, and Zuma believes he's now the boss, thus setting up a power struggle between the two. And the party post put Zuma in line to succeed Mbeki as South Africa's president next year.

But on the day he was elected party president, an interview with the Scorpions' boss, Mokotedi Mpshe, aired on local radio station 702, broke the news that the Scorpions had reopened the corruption case against Zuma, with additional charges.

Mr. MOKOTEDI MPSHE (Leader, The Scorpions, South Africa): The investigation with evidence that we have now points to a case that can be taken to court.

HUNTER-GAULT: The trial is set for August. Siphiwe Nyanda, a top ANC official, charges that Scorpion behavior is at the heart of the ANC's Polokwane action to disband them.

Mr. SIPHIWE NYANDA (Official, African National Congress, South Africa): Charging Jacob Zuma without sufficient evidence, and then subsequently trying to influence the outcome of Polokwane by issuing statements about the imminent charging of Jacob Zuma, all these things, we think, are human rights violations.

HUNTER-GAULT: Opposition politicians see the resolution to disband the Scorpions as political. Patricia de Lille, leader of the Independent Democrats Party.

Ms. PATRICIA DE LILLE (Leader, Independent Democrats Party, South Africa): We are very concerned that all the different organs of our security apparatus have been used in some way or another to fight political battles for factions of the ANC.

HUNTER-GAULT: Mbeki denies he used the Scorpions for political ends, and the Scorpions, for their part, maintain they're just doing their job. And they have stung many top ANC figures besides Zuma, including Mbeki ally and police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, now also charged with corruption, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, earlier convicted of fraud.

Meanwhile, public support for the Scorpions is growing. Johannesburg businessman Hugh Glenister has filed a lawsuit to halt dismantling the unit, and has collected at least 45,000 signatures on a Web site created in support of the Scorpions. Glenister says that disbanding the crime unit is the beginning of a slippery slope.

Mr. HUGH GLENISTER (Businessman, Johannesburg, South Africa): Once we taken out the Scorpions, what's next? The Scorpions is the last guardian of the public, between greedy politicians and the public money.

HUNTER-GAULT: Here at the National Prosecuting Authority, which has jurisdiction over the Scorpions, spokesman Tlali Tlali denies charges the Scorpions have been used to settle political scores.

Mr. TLALI TLALI (Spokesman, National Prosecuting Authority, South Africa): (unintelligible) an institutional state here, and we are not a day-care center. Everything that we do is done within the framework of the law. It is not something that is done arbitrarily by us.

HUNTER-GAULT: The Scorpions got a boost from a long-delayed report headed by highly respected judge Sisi Khampepe, which found problems with the unit but recommended it remain intact. But the cabinet supported the ANC on their disbanding, and the tug-of-war over the Scorpions and between the two centers of power is expected to drag on indefinitely.

Meanwhile, because of the uncertainty, Scorpions have begun leaving the unit, and many observers believe in time, the Scorpions will have disbanded themselves, leaving their cases in limbo and the carcasses of the Scorpions littering an increasingly troubled and uncertain political landscape. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Pretoria, South Africa.

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