The recently established ‘fusion centre’ created to prevent, investigate and prosecute Covid-19 corruption through various law enforcement agencies, may signal the nascent revival of the Scorpions – the elite corruption-busting unit that was disbanded in 2008.
“It is clear that as a country we need a permanent structure like the fusion centre,” Justice Minister Ronald Lamola told journalists in a post-cabinet meeting briefing on Thursday.
The comments come amid mounting public scepticism, as government is at pains to demonstrate to citizens that it’s doing everything in its power to counter corruption related to public resources set aside for the state’s Covid-19 response.
The latest tool in the state’s efforts to create greater transparency and accountability regarding the use of Covid-19 funds, is the appointment of a ministerial committee chaired by Lamola that will look into all Covid-19 procurement contracts. The committee will receive a list of all contracts that were awarded during the national state of disaster, with the intention of creating a report that will be published.
On Wednesday night Finance Minister Tito Mboweni together with Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane briefed Parliament on the various interventions Treasury is putting in place to tighten Covid-19 procurement procedures.
These include ending emergency procurement for the supply of Covid-19 goods and services, including personal protective equipment (PPE); and the development of a preventative controls framework by Treasury and Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu that will act as a toolkit for accounting officers with step-by-step instructions on how to implement proper procurement procedures.
Prior to that, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the formation of a “fusion centre” to catch the “hyenas” circling around food parcels meant for the poor, Covid-19 wage subsidies, social relief grants and the procurement of PPE and other medical supplies.
The centre consists of the Financial Intelligence Centre, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the National Prosecuting Authority, the South African Police Service’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks), the Crime Intelligence and Detective Service, the South African Revenue Service, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) and the State Security Agency.
“That fusion centre should be allowed to grow organically,” said Lamola.
“We are looking at legislation to ensure that that fusion centre has a home in terms of a legislative framework that will allow it to do its job with a clear central command and also with it acting independently without any interference from anyone.”
The Directorate of Special Operations, or the Scorpions, operated in this manner prior to its disbandment in 2008, following a resolution adopted at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in December 2007.
The Scorpions had a conviction rate of between 80% and 90% in the investigation and prosecution of high-level cases. It was replaced by the present-day Hawks, which has faced charges of being incapacitated to deal with cases.
Lamola said the cabinet would communicate its final decision when it is ready to do so.
For now, Lamola made it clear that law enforcement agencies are “empowered to act without any fear or favour or prejudice to anyone” who is suspected of wrongdoing.
To remove any suspicion, he specified that should the suspected party be a cabinet member, director-general of deputy director-general, chief executive or low ranking officials in the public or private sectors: “They [the law enforcement agencies] must do their job. They have been freed.”
“If there was any doubt that they must not do their jobs, cabinet is saying they must just do what the Constitution says.”
Lamola emphasised the point: “It is constitutionally guaranteed – no one is going to interfere ….”