JOHANNESBURG // Across the developing world, the police are often unpopular, with accusations of corruption, incompetence and thuggery a common litany. But this week 100,000 people appealed for South Africa's top crime-fighting unit to be saved from abolition. The Directorate of Special Operations (DSO), popularly known as the Scorpions, a named derived from their logo of a red arachnid, was set up in 1999 as an elite unit to investigate and prosecute its cases. Its mandate was to tackle organised crime, corruption and other priority offences in a country with phenomenally high crime rates.
But although more than 50 people are still murdered in South Africa every day, it appears the Scorpions have been too successful for their own good. Their scalps include such figures as Mark Thatcher, who admitted a connection with a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea in a plea bargain, and several South African politicians. Tony Yengeni, a former African National Congresss chief whip, was convicted of fraud, as was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela, as a result of their efforts. In January Jackie Selebi, the suspended national commissioner of police, stood in the dock to face accusations of corruption.
Most prominent of all, the new ANC leader, Jacob Zuma, is facing multiple corruption charges, after his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for related offences. Given the ANC's electoral dominance, the case is effectively the only thing standing between Mr Zuma and the national presidency. In a country where power is effectively determined by internal ANC politics, and where a titanic struggle was waged between Mr Zuma and the incumbent president, Thabo Mbeki, for the ANC leadership, it is perhaps unsurprising accusations have been laid that the Scorpions have been misused for political purposes. It is an accusation the unit denies.
At its congress in Polokwane in December, when Mr Zuma ousted Mr Mbeki from his party post, the ANC resolved to reform the directorate and incorporate it into the national police, ostensibly on grounds of efficiency. The ANC said its concerns about the DSO included "the overlapping mandate and potential for conflict between the Scorpions and the SAPS [South Africa Police Service], the lack of co-ordination and co-operation between the Scorpions and SAPS on priority crimes, and concerns about the DSO's intelligence gathering functions".
Critics say the decision will eviscerate its effectiveness. The legislation is before parliament - sent there by Mr Mbeki's cabinet - and on Monday, the deadline for public objections, more than 2,000 written submissions were made, with the Democratic Alliance, an opposition party, submitting 98,000 signatures demanding the Scorpions be saved. The DA quoted one opponent of the move as saying: "I strongly oppose the disbandment of the Scorpions. We must not allow criminals to be protected by the government. There are obviously some top officials of the ANC that cannot sleep well at night knowing the Scorpions' success rate."
Another, it added, wrote: "I am saddened by the fact that our president and the ANC government would want to legislate to disestablish the Scorpions when it is clear knowledge that our national and provincial government is infected with corrupt officials." In her most recent weekly letter, Helen Zille, the DA leader, said: "The party that Zuma belongs to has become a haven for convicted and suspected criminals. It is obvious to all that the real reason for shutting down the Scorpions is that they were too successful in exposing corruption in high places.
"When government takes decisions based on the interests of the ruling party's leaders, rather than the people they are supposed to serve, we know we are in trouble." But Steven Friedman, a research associate at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, said the move is more than mere self-preservation on the part of some figures in the ruling party. Instead, its members see threats to individuals as jeopardising the movement as a whole.
"The ANC comes out of a history in which it was outlawed, it was subject to a great deal of government repression," he said. "That has created a complex in which it's very easy for people in the ANC to see activity aimed at certain leaders of the ANC as an attack on the ANC." The revolutionary mindset was undoubtedly appropriate when the ANC was fighting apartheid, but with 279 seats out of 400 in parliament - the party took almost 70 per cent of the vote at the last general election in 2004 - there is little to threaten its position, or to stop its passing the reforms that will disband the Scorpions.
One man trying to change that is Hugh Glenister, a Johannesburg-based businessman who has gone to court in a private capacity, seeking to have the move declared unconstitutional. He lost the first hearing, but is now seeking leave to appeal to the Constitutional Court, the highest judiciary body in South Africa, in a campaign he estimates will cost him about US$300,000 (Dh1.1 million). "We should be protected against arbitrary action by the government," he said.
"Certain people within the ANC feel they are above the law and don't feel they have to answer to the law. "During the apartheid years we all fought to get rid of the regime, and I think we got lazy or maybe relaxed our vigilance. We need to be forever vigilant against power corrupting individuals." Public hearings will be held around the country next month. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org