Scorpions are no more
By Gaye Davis, Siyabonga Mkhwanazi and Christelle Terreblanche
Independent Political Bureau
The death of the Scorpions is official.
The presidency confirmed today that President Kgalema Motlanthe has signed into law the two bills that provide for the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO) - popularly known as the Scorpions - to be dismantled and a new organized crime-fighting body to be put in its place under the SA Police Service.
By putting his signature on the SA Police Service Amendment Bill and the National Prosecuting Authority Amendment Bill, Motlanthe has fulfilled the wishes of his party, the ANC, which resolved at its Polokwane conference in December 2007 that the unit should be crushed.
Presidential spokesperson Thabo Masebe told Independent Newspapers today that Motlanthe signed the two bills on Tuesday, just ahead of his departure on Wednesday for the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland.
The ruling party's decision to exterminate the elite crime-fighting unit sparked a major political battle, with opposition political parties pulling out all the stops in a bid to preserve the unit, and accusations that Parliament was simply going through the motions of testing public opinion on the controversial decision.
It also saw Johannesburg businessman Hugh Glenister launch a one-man legal crusade to halt the move which took him all the way to the Constitutional Court, but without success. The court held it was premature for it to make any decision on the matter as parliament was still engaged in processing the legislation.
Glenister's attorney, Kevin Louis, yesterday received a letter from the Office of the President informing him that Motlanthe had assented to the legislation. The letter, from advocate Sibongile Sigodi, head of legal and executive services in the presidency, said that the President found "no basis for constitutional reservation (of the Bills) as contemplated in S 79 of the constitution".
Louis told Independent Newspapers today Motlanthe's decision to sign the bills came as "no surprise".
But he said he had been hoping that Motlanthe would exercise the discretion allowed him by Section 79 of the Constitution - which says if the President has any reservations about the constitutionality of a bill he can refer it to the Constitutional Court for verification.
"Personally, I think he was pushed," Louis said - referring to the recent visit the ANC's chief whip in parliament, Nyami Booi, made to discuss with Motlanthe concerns that the bills, passed by Parliament last year, had not yet been signed.
Louis said it was as yet unclear on what date the legislation would take effect. "The letter from the presidency made no reference to this."
DA spokesperson on safety and security Dianne Kohler Barnard described the news as "a sad day for South Africa".
She accused Motlanthe of failing to heed calls from the opposition and civil society that the Scorpions bills were unconstitutional.
"There is no independent unit left to investigate our politicians and police like (national commissioner) Jackie Selebi. It's a dark day for South Africa. It's self-serving for the ANC (to disband the specialized unit). I feel quite ill," said Kohler Barnard.
African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart said it was regrettable that the president had assented to the bills.
"In our view this unit has proven to be highly effective to fight crime. It's only disbanded because it targeted high-profile ANC leaders.
"It (the disbandment of the Scorpions) will impair our nation's effort to fight crime," said Swart.
National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Tlali Tlali was not immediately available for comment.
Acting National Director of Public Prosecutions, advocate Mokotedi Mphshe, said the National Prosecuting Authority had been ready for the announcement.
"We foresaw it coming for a long time", Mpshe told Independent Newspapers today.
He said transitional arrangements had already been worked out between the NPA and te Department of Safety and Security.
These would ensure a smooth transfer between the Scorpions and the new Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation into which most of the Scorpions' work and staff is to be collapsed.
Mpshe said President Motlanthe would decide the actual date on which the new unit would come into being.
He gave the assurance that the transitional arrangements provided for current investigations to continue, with the possibility that the two units may operate in tandem for a certain period of time.
A process to decide which staff transfer from the Scorpions into the new DPCI also forms part of the transitional arrangements.
ANC Deputy Chief Whip Bulelani Magwanishe said the ruling party welcomed Motlanthe's decision to sign the bills.
Magwanishe said the proposed new DPCI would be better equipped for the fight against organised crime.
"We envisage that the new unit will have more teeth and resources.
"Part of the problem with the Scorpions was that it did not have enough resources for forensic investigations. It outsourced resources from outside (forensic firms)," he said.