Scorpions for Dinner.

The decision by the Zuma camp of the ANC to disband the Scorpions, the executive arm of the Department of Justice, deserves to be looked at, and so is not being looked at, except, perhaps, here.

The Scorpions are a privileged, well-funded and well-equipped body devoted to fighting organised crime. As such, they are a lot like the American FBI on whom they try to model themselves, although unlike the FBI they do not function as a political police. Their ambit is to pursue gangsters and corruption in business and government. This is obviously a useful goal to pursue, and one which was not well performed by the Police Service — which is the ostensible reason why President Mbeki set up the Scorpions in the first place.

Turning the Scorpions into a unit within the Police Service is not, of course, to destroy them. However, it does reduce their freedom and raise the possibility that they might be quietly abolished, as other special units within the Police Service have been abolished. It is an explicit statement that the Scorpions have not been doing their job properly and therefore need to be brought under control.

Implicit statements are various. One implicit statement which many have derived from this action is that Jacob Zuma wishes to protect himself against going to prison. It is argued against this that his case is in the hands of the Public Prosecutor now, and therefore disbanding the Scorpions will not protect him. This is partly true, although it is also true that cases tend to be driven by the investigating officer, and if the investigating officer falls under the authority of someone who does not want the case to be pursued, the case would become much weaker and less likely to succeed.

Another implicit statement, which has been made explicit by some politicians and the whole media, is that the Scorpions have been politically misused by President Mbeki for his own purposes. There is no evidence that this is the case, but it is Zuma’s only defense and a powerful propaganda weapon against Mbeki in the media. On the other hand, if this is the problem, then disbanding the Scorpions is obviously not the solution; getting rid of Mbeki and replacing him with a person of greater integrity is the solution. So: why disband the Scorpions?

One plausible answer is that the feeling is that the Presidency is too powerful. The Scorpions are not exactly a Presidential unit, but they do report to the President and he can hire and fire their leader. Hence it is not so much Mbeki that these people are afraid of, but anyone in his place with his authority. Disbanding the Scorpions pulls the teeth of central government, in this view. It gives the ANC relatively more control as a party, and the ANC’s Presidential candidate less control as a President.

This view segues into another related view: that the leading lights in the ANC and elsewhere are afraid of what the Scorpions might be capable of. If the Scorpions are prepared to take on the Presidency, then they are prepared to take on anybody. Most of the leaders of the present NEC are businessmen, and most of them are corrupt, as are virtually all businessmen. The Scorpions are not incorruptible — there have been several cases of corruption in the Scorpions — but they are certainly less corruptible than the SAPS. Hence, removing the Scorpions reduces the danger that some criminal act on the part of a senior politician will come to light and damage or ruin that politician’s career.

An interesting thing about these issues is that none of them is actually unique to the leadership of the ANC; on the contrary, most of them have been borrowed by the current leadership of the ANC from white media and big business interests. It is undoubtedly the big bourgeoisie which particularly wanted to put Jacob Zuma where he is today, and which therefore sees the Scorpions as a problem in this sphere (since Motlanthe might not be as pliable as Zuma). It is undoubtedly the big bourgeoisie’s media who have run with the story that Mbeki is abusing state organs for his own purposes ever since Mbeki came to prominence, despite the absence of evidence in this regard, and the pretense that the Scorpions have been so misused has been a frequent element of this particular brand of propaganda. (For instance, the claim that Special Operations Director Pikoli’s dismissal was an attempt to save Police Commissioner Selebi, despite Selebi’s almost immediate arrest thereafter.)

Also, it is a constant refrain by big business and the press that the Presidency is too powerful. They naturally want a decentralised state in which big business has complete freedom and control. Equally, they do not want any police unit looking into their own criminal corruption, as they have been able to keep themselves secure from prosecution, for the most part, with occasional bungles like Greg Blank (who was the fall-guy for what was surely a much larger insider-trading business) and the Brett Kebble affair (Kebble was surely murdered to silence him).

So in this regard, virtually everybody in power is likely to be in agreement that the Scorpions need to be done away with. The only person really opposed to this was Thabo Mbeki, and he has been stripped of authority in his party and thus holds power only on sufferance. So — in that case, why is the media and the white establishment so enthusiastic about supporting the Scorpions, whom they did not lift a finger to protect up until the decision was taken to disband them?

Good question. The answer is almost certainly a pure question of propaganda. The Scorpions not only make a superb propaganda weapon against the ANC, but the disbanding of the Scorpions can be used as a comparable propaganda stunt. The disbanding of the Scorpions is almost as useful to the forces of corporate reaction in South Africa as the election of Jacob Zuma.

The Scorpions are being disbanded at the command of the ANC as a party, and this is being implemented by the government who are essentially Mbeki’s people. As a result, the disbanding can be blamed on both, even though there is no evidence that Mbeki wants to see the Scorpions disbanded. He can be blamed, just as much as his bitter enemies who are initiating the process in order to undermine him! It is a perfect situation for propaganda purposes. If necessary, the whole affair can be blamed on Mbeki and Zuma’s rule in it be downplayed or covered up.

The Scorpions have long been portrayed in the media as essentially an organisation working against the ANC. (No doubt this is one reason why there is so little sympathy for them within the ANC, even outside the Zuma camp.) Hence, all those who hate the ANC in South Africa have been trained to like the Scorpions. If the Scorpions were as obviously active against other parties as they are against the ANC, it is unlikely that right-wing whites and their stooges in the media and business would be sympathetic with the Scorpions.

In fact this image does not truly reflect reality; it is a propaganda construct. In part it has been constructed because it has been the standard tactic of opposition parties to accuse the ruling party of corruption, and therefore the Scorpions have been investigating the ruling party (with some results, although these results have virtually never been linked with anything said by an opposition party). Therefore the media constantly links the Scorpions with the national government and the ruling party’s crimes, real or invented. Meanwhile, the Scorpions are quite active in investigating corruption in big business (though not so active as they ought to be) but they receive virtually no press coverage regarding this. Big business has enough control over the media to ensure that their shenanigans will not received too much attention, even when they end up in the courtroom.

As a result, one of the most probable actors calling for the destruction or neutering of the Scorpions, the collective noun for big business, is absent from any discussion on the issue. The attention is on the monkey — Zuma and his merry men — rather than the organ grinder — Zuma’s corporate friends, paymasters and handlers. This, undeniably, is the way South African public opinion is controlled in this modern age.

For instance, at the moment a businessman named Glenister is going to court to “save the Scorpions”, claiming that Glenister, wealthy owner of an information technology company, is threatened by rising crime rates if the Scorpions are disbanded. One does not have to second-guess the court to see that this claim is tommy-rot. Glenister has no idea whether this would be true or not, and no means of proving it, since it relies on counterfactuals. Meanwhile, the person whom he is taking to court is President Mbeki, probably one of the last people in South Africa who really wants the Scorpions disbanded.

It is not clear whether Glenister is simply doing this to knowingly cast dust in the public’s eyes. He could well be acting on behalf of big business to further confuse the public and, as usual, smear Mbeki with the crimes which they themselves are committing or planning to commit. But given the ignorance and political confusion bred of the racist propaganda to which the media routinely subject white South Africans, it is perfectly possible that Glenister is sincere. He may really think that the way to save the Scorpions is to denounce Mbeki, to attack his government, and to promote the general paranoia about crime which is standard procedure on the white right, left, centre and points up and down.

Incidentally, promoting paranoia about crime plays right into the hands of the South African Police Service. It is generally agreed (among the white right and corporate community, exemplified by the propaganda arm of the ex-apartheid armed forces, the Institute for Security Studies) that what is needed is simply to give the SAPS much more money. In that case, taking the Scorpions into the SAPS, regardless of what happens to them after that, and regardless of how they are administered and controlled, appears the way to go. This is exactly how the white right works; its solutions in health care and education are largely the same: throw more money in the general direction of the problem. Big business likes this because they know how to catch the money in huge currency nets. Eventually, too, big business hopes that the structures receiving the money will be outsourced and they will be able to trap even more of the dosh for themselves. This is the kind of agenda which Glenister is serving, and if he doesn’t know it, well, information technology people do tend to be stupider than average, probably because they think themselves so extraordinarily clever.

So the Scorpions go down, Mbeki goes down, the ANC goes down (except for some members of the Zuma faction), the SAPS eventually goes down, and the only people who win are big businesspeople living in gated residential communities, free from commonplace thuggery, and making their enormous profits out of corporate crime. Is this a depressing prospect? Then perhaps we should have tried to do something about it a few years ago, because now seems to be much too late to change anything.

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