Stung by its Own Poisonous Tail
Since the formation of the elite investigation unit on September 1 1999, ANC leaders have generally sung the Scorpions' praises for the unit's successes in combating crime.
They had good reason to be proud of them.
The Scorpions were the pride of the ANC government - until they turned their sting on Deputy President Jacob Zuma.
The Scorpions, assisted by the National Intelligence Agency, infiltrated Pagad (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) and stopped the terror campaign in Cape Town.
The bomb explosions that turned Cape Town into one of the most dangerous areas in the country are but a faint memory, and several Pagad leaders are serving jail terms for their involvement in these acts of terror.
The Scorpions have also recovered millions of rands in stolen goods. They've smashed drug syndicates and confiscated drugs. In two separate cases in Johannesburg, they seized drugs with a street value of R700-million and R400-million. They have arrested and prosecuted gangsters and uncovered arms caches.
Their success rate is estimated at 94% - so the government and the ANC had every reason to be proud.
But not any more.
Some within the ruling party are no longer impressed with the elite unit. They say the Scorpions, under Bulelani Ngcuka are bent on destroying Zuma.
The deputy president was seen as a strong contender to take over from Thabo Mbeki as ANC president and, by extension, president of the country in 2009 - until allegations emerged that he had tried to solicit a R500 000 bribe. The theory goes that the Scorpions are being used to rubbish him.
The ANC secretary-general, Kgalema Motlanthe, the highest-ranking ANC official outside the government, described the Scorpions' investigation of Zuma as "dirty tricks of a special type".
Motlanthe told City Press that "no matter who and how long they investigate Zuma, they will not come up with anything.
"What is painted out there in the public is that Zuma's finances are chaotic and that he cannot manage his own financial affairs.
"They are going this route of digging up his finances around his house, children and car because, on hard evidence, they cannot convict Zuma. At the same time they don't want to go to court to afford him an opportunity to be cleared.
"They don't want that, but that he should remain with this doubt hanging over him. By the time this matter is closed, they want a situation where nobody is left with any doubt about his incapacity to lead. That is the objective."
Motlanthe's conspiracy theory is echoed in a statement made by Schabir Shaik that there are "enemy agents within our government".
But is there any substance to the notion that the Scorpions in general and Ngcuka in particular are being used to discredit Zuma? Can the Scorpions be used to settle political scores?
Professor Sue Booysen, a political analyst at the University Port Elizabeth, says while it is possible for state agents to be used to advance political agendas, there is no evidence that the probe against Zuma is one such case.
"They (the Scorpions) are running a professional investigation. In fact, they have contributed to high-level investor confidence. I think they had a basis to investigate Zuma.
"There is enough to prosecute but not necessarily enough to secure a conviction," she adds.
Many have argued that the Scorpions should tell the nation why they decided not to charge Zuma despite having a prima facie case against him. And Zuma is aggrieved and has said he wants to be given an opportunity to defend himself in court.
Scorpions spokesperson Sipho Ngwema says: "Any prosecutor will tell you that every case has to meet basic standards for reasonable prospects of success. If this standard is not met, there is no logic in pressing charges.
"The same people who are saying we should charge him would be angry if we did not get conviction, just as the public reacted with outrage to the acquittal of (Wouter) Basson."
Another view is that if Zuma were to be charged, he would have to resign or President Thabo Mbeki would be forced to order him to step down.
And what if, indeed, Zuma did resign and the case dragged on for more than a year only for him to be acquitted? Would the Scorpions not be castigated for creating a national crisis?
"We did not consider that," says Ngwema.
"Our decision not to charge the deputy president was not based on political considerations but on the fact that our prospects of success were limited."
He denies the allegations that the Scorpions are being used to discredit Zuma.
"We were given the task of investigating the arms deal by parliament. Those who suggest that we are being used are actually implying that the various parties represented in parliament conspired and agreed to use us. Clearly there is no basis for this."
While some ANC leaders are clearly annoyed by the Scorpions, there are others, notably Justice Minister Penuell Maduna, who have thrown their weight behind the unit.
The question now is whether the Zuma saga will blunt the Scorpions' sting.
Some of their victims
Deputy President Jacob Zuma, whose name was linked to that of Schabir Shaik, was investigated for alleged corruption.
Tony Yengeni, former ANC chief whip, was found guilty of defrauding parliament by lying about a huge discount he got on a motor vehicle.
Durban-based businessman Schabir Shaik is currently facing charges of corruption brought to light by the Scorpions.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was arrested by the SAPS, but the Scorpions assisted with the prosecution.
Former Transnet boss Joe Ndhlela was found guilty of fraud. He is currently out on bail of R100 000.
Profile of a scorpion
Young, recent graduates, mainly lawyers and specialists in commerce, were recruited to join the Scorpions. They were trained by America's Federal Bureau of Investigations and Britain's Scotland Yard. In order to attract experienced people, the Scorpions also recruited from the old security agencies.
Although trained by the FBI, the Scorpions were not modelled on the FBI since the American organisation did not prosecute cases.
Why they were formed
Complicated, highly organised crimes needed special attention. These included the terror attacks in Cape Town, corruption, drug trafficking and car hijacking syndicates. It was apparent that the SAPS could not effectively deal with organised crime. The idea was to establish a special unit that would be prosecution-driven. Its members would be highly trained in legal, commercial and other related fields to co-ordinate investigations.
National Prosecuting Authority
Bulelani Ngcuka is the National Director of Public Prosecutions. Although his political head is the justice minister, Ngcuka reports to parliament. He heads the National Prosecuting Authority.
Headed by Leonard McCarthy
To investigate particularly serious criminal or unlawful conduct committed in an organised fashion.
The launch of the Scorpions was the first step in the creation of a crime-fighting capacity to investigate and prosecute "national priority crime".
It is a multidisciplinary agency with limited investigative capacity so often works with police. It looks at organised crime, serious and complex financial crime, organised corruption, racketeering and money laundering.
Headed by Jan Hemming
To co-ordinate and assist the traditional prosecuting structures, ie the offices of the director of public prosecutions and lower court prosecutors.
It comprises two units:
It also provides support in matters relating to international co-operation (eg extraditions, treaties), constitutional matters and litigation.
Headed by Chris Jordaan
The unit's primary focus is to investigate cases of corruption, commercial fraud, and theft - mainly in companies. The unit can also investigate crimes related to the violation of the Companies Act and regulations. For example, a company in the Western Cape was fined R50-million for violating the Companies Act. The unit members work closely with other international agencies. White-collar crime is increasing at company level, and the unit is kept busy.
Headed by Willie Hofmeyr
To seize assets of criminals to ensure that they don't benefit from their ill-gotten gains or use these gains to commit crimes.
Established in May 1999, the unit is led by Willie Hofmeyr and has lawyers, forensic accountants and investigators.
The Prevention of Organised Crime Act gives the unit power to seize assets either (a) through civil action after conviction or (b) through civil action before conviction by proving, on a balance of probabilities, that the assets were tainted by crime.
With acknowledgements to Khathu Mamaila and The Star.