Foolish and disturbing

2008-02-20 00:00

The decision to disband the Scorpions by merging them into the South African Police Service is both foolish and disturbing.

It is foolish because it will inevitably diminish the effectiveness of the country’s most successful crime-busting unit — for no good reason. The old adage applies: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The Scorpions are successful because they are a coherent, highly motivated unit. The SAPS are not. They have a dismal record accumulated over many years of sloppiness, abusive behaviour (witness the recent action against foreign refugees in Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church), poor leadership and a low level of community trust. The Scorpions’ efficiency can only be diminished by forcing them to join such an outfit. Some of its members will be dispersed within the SAPS; others will quit.

It is foolish because it comes as yet another hammer blow to South Africa’s image among investors at an inopportune moment. The Eskom power crisis and the shortage of skills which it highlights have already slammed a brake on our economic growth rate: in the past 20 days a staggering R31 billion of foreign investment has left the country.

Now comes this third whammy as evidence that the government is not serious about the fight against crime. Power, skills and crime are the three biggest disincentives to investors in South Africa. As more investment flows out of the country the rand will decline further, which will increase inflation, which will hurt the poor hardest — the very people Jacob Zuma has vowed to help.

Above all, it is foolish because it is unnecessary. No one has offered a single valid reason for disbanding the Scorpions. The only argument voiced is that they have violated their mandate by embarking on a political witch-hunt, which is palpable nonsense because you can’t build up a 95% prosecution success rate by pursuing unjustified investigations or fabricating evidence.

We all know the real reason. It is because so many African National Congress members, including senior members, have been the subjects of Scorpions investigations. And rightly so, because corruption has spread into the ranks of the ruling party to an alarming degree. The party knows this. As Kgalema Motlanthe, then secretary-general, admitted to Carol Paton in a major analysis published in a special Financial Mail report last year: “The rot is across the board … almost every project is conceived because it offers certain people a chance to make money.”

So instead of seeking to snuff out the investigations, the ANC leadership should work to end the rot in its own ranks, for they must know that nothing can corrode the soul of a political party — and destroy a country — so swiftly as the curse of corruption. Ask any Nigerian.

Then again the decision to disband the Scorpions is deeply disturbing because of the way it was announced.

It began as a policy decision adopted by the Zuma majority at the Polokwane conference. President Thabo Mbeki was clearly reluctant to implement it. One saw him in his State of the Nation address and again in a television interview last Tuesday night trying to filibuster the issue by saying it was very complicated and would have to be carefully considered in the context of reassessing the whole criminal justice system, including the recommendations of the Kampepe Commission which found there was no legal or constitutional merit in the argument that the Scorpions should be disbanded to establish a single police service.

One, therefore, couldn’t take a decision on the Scorpions in isolation, Mbeki reasoned.

Yet the very next day Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula stood up in the National Assembly and baldly announced that the Scorpions were indeed going to be disbanded. He did so in language that indicated it was a decision already taken. A fait accompli.

One doesn’t have to be a mind-reader to realise what was going on here. It seems clear that Nqakula was acting on instructions from party headquarters and what he did left Mbeki in the awkward position of having to try to put some face-saving spin on the issue in his wrap-up speech on Thursday, with the incredulous argument that disbanding this unit with its fantastic success rate is intended to improve the fight against crime.

So here we have the leader of a political party, who is not a member of Parliament, effectively going over the head of the president of the country and instructing a member of the Cabinet to inform Parliament of what legislation the government is going to place before it for enactment.

An extremely unsatisfactory state of affairs, to put it mildly.

These are worrying times in our young democracy. Business confidence has plummeted and there is unease in the air. The ANC is at war with itself, there is no realistic alternative to it and as the two centres of power fail to engage, they leave a leadership vacuum which is creating the sense of a country adrift, the future uncertain.

It is not only Zuma, with his aggressive lunge for power and continuing efforts to evade his “day in court”, who is to blame for this. Mbeki is still president of the republic and he has a duty to steady the ship and navigate it through this difficult transition.

Yet he seems to be frozen in the same kind of denial on the Zuma camp’s Polokwane triumph as gripped him on the reality of Aids and his failure to secure an agreement that will deliver a free and fair election in Zimbabwe.

He has simply not come to terms with the reality of Zuma’s seizure of control of the ANC and what that requires of him as president of the country. He is carrying on as though nothing has changed.

What the country needs is for the president to be seen engaging with the new leaders of the ANC, publicly acknowledging their leadership of the ruling party and pledging to work with them to ensure a smooth transition to the new regime. But in doing so he must clarify the working relationship between them; that as president of the republic he and his Cabinet are still the legitimate executive authority, that Parliament is still the legislative authority and that, while he is willing to discuss policy matters with the new party leaders, there can be no unconstitutional interference with those authorities during this transitional phase. Building trust with the incoming leadership, and to be seen to be doing so, is vital for national morale. But so is frankness and honesty. This requires the president to do two things.

Firstly, to insist that there can be no interference with the due process of law with regard to the criminal charges against Zuma.

Secondly, to facilitate a closer working relationship with the new leadership he should appoint Kgalema Motlanthe as deputy president of the republic. It is an obvious step that would do much to reassure the country. Mbeki’s expressed reluctance to do so is simply further evidence of his chronic obtuseness when bold leadership is required in the national interest.

• Allister Sparks, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, is a veteran South African journalist and political commentator.

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