It is not always easy to stand up and fight against injustice, oppression, corruption and plain stupidity — especially if those guilty of perpetrating the injustice, oppression, corruption and stupidity are one’s friends, one’s colleagues, one’s family, one’s comrades.

This is why the vast majority of white South Africans who would describe themselves as “good” people did not rise up against the apartheid government and never took up arms against the state or at least defied it in some other non-violent way.

Like the many “good” Germans who stood by while Hitler invaded his neighbouring countries and then started exterminating the Jews, many “good” white (and some black) South Africans continued with their lives while the National Party government tortured and assassinated its opponents and vigorously applied its deeply demeaning and oppressive racist policies that advanced the interests of all white people. Some whites voted for the PFP, but this did not stop them from working for Anglo American or one of the other companies that exploited (and still exploits) black labour and whose implicit support helped prop up the apartheid government.

Yes, as a white person who grew up in a household in which prime ministers HF Verwoerd and BJ Vorster were almost just as revered as Jesus Christ and Racheltjie de Beer, I know all too well how difficult it is to stand up for what is right and true. So, I have some sympathy for the “good” people in the ANC (inside and outside Parliament) who have chosen to remain silent in the face of the election of Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC and have decided not to criticise the decision to disband the Scorpions.

It must be difficult to stand up and agree with members of the opposition and with those irritating whining white naysayers, and to have to admit that Jacob Zuma is a seemingly corrupt, misogynistic and homophobic male patriarch; that he should not be trusted with selling second-hand cars — let alone with being president of the once-proud ANC and (even worse) of the country.

It must be just as difficult to have to admit that no coherent or plausible legal or political reasons have been provided by the ANC for the disbanding of the Scorpions, and that it is being done to protect a corrupt, ANC-led kleptocracy from embarrassment and/or long prison sentences. If one is a member of the ANC and if one’s new president is asked by the BBC whether he is a crook because — as the highest court in the land has confirmed — he took money from a convicted fraudster and then did several favours for him in his capacity as an ANC politician, it is perhaps understandable that one would keep quiet or would defend the indefensible. After all, those imperialist British should not tell us that we cannot steal money from the poor — it is our poor, after all.

Of course, those passive white South Africans who “never supported apartheid” (but somehow never actually fought against it either — unless one counts that one time they took the woman who cleaned their house to Baragwanath Hospital for a check-up) often argued that they could not fight against the government because that would aid the “communistic” ANC. So one understands the silence from ANC benches, the quiet mutterings of how the racist opposition was exploiting the Zuma and Scorpions sagas for its own political gain.

Yet, surely there must be some good people left in the ANC who would be prepared to stand up for what is good and right — even if it meant that they would lose out on jobs or state tenders or Travelgate vouchers. Surely some ANC members must still be brave enough to point out that although Zuma has never himself been convicted of a crime, he has acted in ways that are so appallingly stupid and dishonest that he should be expelled from the ANC forthwith and sent back to Nkandla to prepare for his trial.

It does make one wonder how these “good” people can sleep at night, knowing that the revolution for which so many real good people have sacrificed so much is being corrupted and betrayed by the new ANC elite. I know they have school fees to pay and Johnny Walker Red Label to buy (and not all of them have a Glenn Agliotti or a Schabir Shaik to assist), but surely just common decency and an understanding of what is owed to the millions of poor South Africans require them to stand up, admit the truth and fight for what is right.

Corruption does not directly affect the lives of the rich and well-to-do — who more often than not are the people who benefited from apartheid. Corruption disproportionately affects the poor who rely on government services for their very existence and who cannot opt out of the system with private security and overseas holidays and Discovery medical aid.

It is an indisputable fact that the Scorpions are the one crime-fighting unit that has consistently made a real difference in the fight against organised crime and corruption in our country. Now the Scorpions are being disbanded and no matter how this move is presented by the politicians, the real and only reason for this move has nothing to do with strengthening the fight against crime and corruption and everything with stopping this unit from pursuing politicians and other important ANC-aligned people at any cost.

The truth is that even if a new unit is created within the police force (a force still headed by the friend of a convicted drug dealer, remember) such a new unit will not be able to pursue the high-profile political cases with the same verve and know-how as the Scorpions. And in future the newly appointed Jackie Selebis and Jacob Zumas of our world will not be investigated and will be free to get crooks to bankroll them, and they will be free to take bribes and con the poor out of service delivery as much as they like.

This is because the Scorpions are/were a unique unit with extraordinary wide powers and a complex structure that was created exactly because it was required for the effective investigation and prosecution of organised crime and corruption in high places. In terms of the National Prosecuting Authority Act, the Scorpions are given wide powers to investigate organised crime, which is defined broadly to include any two incidents of criminal activity that have a similar intent. This allowed the Scorpions to go after the organised crime bosses and politicians and officials such as Zuma and Selebi. It is likely that the new unit will not have similarly broad powers.

But the Act also empowers the Scorpions to investigate cases, gather information and prosecute criminals and, in order to do so, effectively put together teams of well-trained lawyers and investigators who can act together to gather crime intelligence, investigate specific crimes and construct cases that will stand up in court. No wonder they have a conviction rate of almost 90%.

A new unit situated within the police force would not have the prosecutors at its disposal to ensure that effective cases were constructed and would also not have the same intelligence-gathering activity. Given the culture in the police force, it would also not have the same skills set and high morale of the Scorpions and would inevitably be caught up in the mediocrity and politics of the SAPS. Yes, a new unit — if well staffed — might be able to catch a few gang bosses if it was lucky, but when it comes to the bribery and corruption involving politicians and powerful people, it would not be able to go after them effectively.

The ANC knows this very well and those who defend the disbanding of the Scorpions openly admit that the reason for the disbanding of the unit has much to do with the fact that they have had “too much power” and that they have used this power far too effectively. (But in the Orwellian language of skelm politicians they talk about the “abuse” of power, by which they mean the effective use of power to catch the “wrong” guys — that is, our guys.) That is why, no matter what the ANC people finally come up with, a new unit will never, ever be given the same powers as the Scorpions for fear that it would “abuse” this power to go after ANC leaders. Because who knows which other ANC leaders have taken money from crooks and did favours for them? Better just to stop these people before they start investigating our other comrades as well.

This is all glaringly obvious for any half-honest observer regardless of his or her race, political affiliation or ideological point of view, yet “good” men and women in the ANC defend this move or stay silent in the face of this deeply dishonest move. And as I said, I understand why, because it is difficult to stand up for what is right and speak out against one’s family and one’s colleagues and one’s friends and comrades — even if one knows that one has an ethical duty to the country to do so.

But maybe — if there is any justice in the world — one day the ANC leaders who never spoke up will be held to account and perhaps some of their children and their children’s children will ask them (as sadly very few white children are asking their parents): Why did you not say anything and why did you not fight against this injustice and this disgrace?

And they will mutter something about loyalty to the struggle and the racist white whiners, and maybe they will even believe themselves. But when history is written, they will find — like those “good” Germans and those “good” white South Africans — that they have been on the wrong side of history and that through their silence they have allowed great injustice to flourish. But by then it would be too late — for them and for our country.


  • Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics, including gay rights, the right to equality, social and economic rights, and affirmative action. Since October 2006 he also publishes a blog, Constitutionally Speaking.


Pierre de Vos

Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics,...

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