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Elite South Africa anti-crime unit to disband

Lawmakers in South Africa have moved to disband an elite  crime-busting group  known as the Scorpions. The move comes despite an increase in violent crime across the country.
/ Source: The Associated Press

South Africa's elite crime-busters known as the Scorpions have lost their sting.

The National Assembly approved new legislation Thursday to disband the investigating unit and incorporate it into the police force. The move came despite widespread objections it would weaken the fight against crime in a country wracked by more than 50 murders a day as well as frequent bank heists, hijackings and violent theft.

The Scorpions have a much better track record than the police at solving crime. But they have fallen afoul of the ruling African National Congress party for their corruption probe of ANC leader Jacob Zuma, who is expected to become the country's next president.

During public hearings, the opposition Democratic Alliance handed in a petition with 98,000 signatures objecting to the move, but to no avail.

Safety and Security Minister Nathi Mthethwa told parliament Thursday that disbanding the unit would strengthen law enforcement by eliminating duplication and rivalry.

"We have established a sharper instrument to stab the heart of organized crime," he said.

Easy on crime?
The ANC used its overwhelming majority to push through the legislation 252 to 63. It now has to go to the National Council of Provinces, but that is likely to be a formality.

Most independent analysts say the move sends a message that South Africa is not serious about clamping down on graft and organized crime. There are also serious doubts whether some high priority cases will even continue.

The National Prosecuting Authority — which housed the Scorpions — is struggling to get corruption charges against Zuma reinstated in connection with a massive arms deal scandal.

It has also pressed charges against national police chief Jackie Selebi for allegedly having a corrupt relationship with a convicted drug smuggler. In a twist of irony, Selebi will become the new boss of the Scorpions once it is transferred to the police force.

Vusi Pikoli, who was chief prosecutor until he was suspended for charging Selebi with corruption, called it a "sad day" for South Africa.

"(The unit was) feared by the criminals, loved by the people and respected by its peers," he told Radio 702.

Taking on the powerful
The Scorpions, officially called the Directorate of Special Operations and the equivalent of the FBI, was set up in 1999 to focus on organized crime.

It made nearly 2,000 arrests in the past six years and had a conviction rate of 90 percent, compared to the police's estimated 10 percent, according to the Democratic Alliance. The ANC disputes those figures.

Critics accused the Scorpions of Hollywood-style swoops and "cherry-picking" cases, leaving the rest to the police. They also claimed many investigators were relics of the apartheid-era security forces.

The Scorpions were famous for taking on the rich and powerful. In addition to Zuma, targets included Mark Thatcher, the son of the former British prime minister, and a whole series of murky underworld figures and corrupt businessmen.

They also investigated dozens of lawmakers accused of using official travel vouchers for their own personal use, including Nyamezeli Booi, who was named Thursday as ANC chief whip. Opposition attempts to keep lawmakers implicated in the travel scam from voting Thursday were overruled.

"Today is a day to be remembered that will live on in infamy," said opposition lawmaker Koos Van der Merwe.