Hawks, Scorpions and Spooks

Apr 12, 11 Hawks, Scorpions and Spooks

What do the former Directorate of Special Operations (‘the Scorpions’) and the National Intelligence Agency (‘NIA’) have in common? This sounds like the precursor to a witty one-liner, but the answer is actually far from amusing: both appear to have been infiltrated by different factions of the pre-Polokwane ANC. Certain ANC cadres appeared most distressed by the Scorpions apparent pandering to the Mbeki re-election agenda, while Zuma’s legal team found themselves conveniently in possession of NIA tapes of phone conversations that seem to substantiate the view that Zuma was being persecuted by the Scorpions. The result was compressed Marxism: an important episode of South African history played out as farcical tragedy / tragic farce. Zuma was not prosecuted, nor was anyone else; the Scorpions were disbanded and replaced by the Hawks; and politics took the turns with which we are all now familiar. Well, almost. Hugh Glenister and five Constitutional Court justices have ensured that this sordid chapter has not (yet) been swiftly signed and sealed. But even if this last-minute-save restores some credibility to institutions that play an important role in South Africa, the damage that has already been done gives pause for thought.

Democracy requires a lot if it is to be successful. Free and fair elections obviously play an important role. Equally necessary are the institutions which constitute and enable everyday practices and realisations of democracy: parliament, the IEC, a functioning judiciary, etc. These institutions increase government’s accountability through providing citizens with information and with access to the different levels of government. Institutions generally fulfill these roles better than people do because institutions better approximate perpetual and consistent succession, and they can have broader reach. True, institutions are ultimately established and maintained by people in order to achieve a particular end. So there is no guarantee that institutions will operate successfully (or at all), or achieve what they were initially established for. However, this is a reason to carefully monitor those who are entrusted with running a particular institution, rather than justifying a retreat into institutional scepticism.

In South Africa institutions such as the Scorpions and Hawks are there to root out organised crime and corruption. Similarly, the NIA is there to gather and safeguard information essential to South Africa’s security. Implicit in these roles is the acknowledgement that: (i) institutional failure is harmful to South Africa and South Africans; and (ii) the bad guys will also be making use of institutions in order to achieve their nefarious ends. Corruption plays on poor regulation and institutional oversight in order to facilitate the lining of private pockets by public funds. Organised crime eponymously indicates that networks and carefully co-ordinated plans (sounds a bit like what institutions do, right?) will be exploited in order to silence (kill) key opponents, import materials (often illicit) which could later be lucratively sold, and ensure that those involved in these insidious activities do not face serious consequences for their actions. Obviously, none of this helps democracy, or the building of a society in which all may participate equally in order to further their life prospects.

One clear sign that an institution is not being holistically preserved is that key positions within it have become open to infiltration by those who will not act according to what those positions should entail. Acting in the public interest, and upholding the public’s trust, is no easy task, especially given the multiple perspectives within any group.

Thus the very act of accusing someone of, or investigating him or her for, corruption becomes a sinister political tool, while society’s faith that corruption will actually be dealt with disappears. 

However, both are clearly violated when the gain pursued is that of a specific individual, sect or faction. It is even worse when such a violation occurs in the name of the public interest. Though citizens may see right through such a sham, institutional credibility is nonetheless squandered alongside the pilfering self-aggrandisement of the deceivers. More problematically, such a sham may garner some popular support.

Several issues arise out of the ensuing institutional decline. Most narrowly, the institutions cease to perform the role with which they were initially tasked. Service delivery protests have highlighted the corrosion of both local government and local government’s ability to provide what was promised in election manifestos. This may deteriorate so far as to have such institutions coming to display the exact characteristics they were established to eliminate, as when anti-corruption bodies are themselves corrupted. On a broader level, societal faith in institutions – and the concomitant buy-in that is necessary for their effective functioning – takes a dip. One further consequence is that certain debates are silenced or displaced in favour of less helpful or more harmful discussions. Thus allegations of corruption in the arms deal are sidelined by considerations of individual political vendettas. Moreover, the institutions ability to speak and act on behalf of the public at large dissipates as its ability to do so is publicly undermined by the private interests which appear to be furthered by, and drive, its conduct. Thus the very act of accusing someone of, or investigating him or her for, corruption becomes a sinister political tool, while society’s faith that corruption will actually be dealt with disappears.

While democracy can be a force for chaotic but progressive change, it must be underpinned by institutional stability and integrity. One measure of a democratic government’s performance is the health of the institutions underlying it. Glenister and the Consitutional Court have forced one government institution (parliament) to rethink the manner in which it dealt with another public body (replacing the Scorpions with the Hawks). While this highlights the positive role institutions may play in holding one another to account, it is only a partial indication that our democratic bodies are functioning properly. Moreover, the damage already done to some of the institutions involved should not be forgotten. In the buildup to local government elections, one key question should therefore be which political parties will foster appropriate institutional growth. While all contenders may make use of the established institutional apparatus, not all such use is in the interests of South Africa’s democracy.