PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA — As a defense attorney in one of the world's crime capitals, Sanele Mtshazo said his greatest asset was police bungling: In nearly every case, there was botched evidence or missing fingerprint, ballistics or DNA reports.
Often he ruefully watched someone he had defended walk free, and thought, "That one should have gone to jail." Once, it was a man he thought had raped a child.
Feeling as though he was fighting on the wrong side, he switched after two years, becoming an investigator in the Scorpions, South Africa's elite anti-crime task force, trained by the FBI and Scotland Yard.
But the ruling African National Congress, in particular party President Jacob Zuma and his allies, plans to dismantle the unit, which has investigated Zuma on corruption charges. Despite the Scorpions' success in fighting corruption and organized crime, the ANC voted at its December conference that the unit should be dissolved and replaced with a police task force.
The decision came days after Zuma swept to power, and amid news he was about to be indicted. Zuma is heir apparent to succeed President Thabo Mbeki next year, but if convicted, he would not be allowed to lead the country.
Crime analysts see the ANC's decision as a major blow in the fight against corruption.
"It would basically mean they would cease to exist. Anyone who says they are just moving them is not telling the truth, in my view," said Jean Redpath, an independent crime analyst.
The Scorpions have stung many top ANC figures besides Zuma. Others include Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, who was put on extended leave after being charged with corruption, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and former ANC parliamentary whip Tony Yengeni, both convicted of fraud.
When launched in 1999, with crime rocketing, the Scorpions fired South Africa's imagination. The force recruited professionals and graduates, many with multiple degrees. The first head of the federal investigative and prosecutorial unit, Frank Dutton, was lured back from Bosnia-Herzegovina where he was investigating war crimes for the United Nations.
The Scorpions zipped about in flashy white cars decorated with a large red scorpion logo and adopted Dutton's slogan for the unit: "Loved by the people, feared by criminals, respected by peers."
Inside the Scorpions, the atmosphere was idealistic and exhilarating.
In one of its first high-profile busts in 2000, the force broke up a drug ring and seized pills estimated to be worth about $29 million, more than the 500-employee unit's annual budget. With an 85% conviction rate in often high-profile cases, it has won continuing public support.
The contrast with South Africa's police -- overloaded, inefficient, poorly educated and often corrupt -- could not be sharper.
The key to the Scorpions' success, according to analysts, is the unit's team approach, with a prosecutor, investigator and analyst working together from the beginning of any investigation until the end, so that the evidence needed to prove a crime is never overlooked. Scorpions spokesman Tlali Tlali said the "troika" approach was unique to South Africa.
Scorpion senior manager Andrea Kasiram said, "From Day One, you sit with each other and work out what needs to be done. You have constant feedback.
"This process is so different from normal investigations and prosecutions in the South African criminal justice system used in various courts. I was a [conventional] prosecutor. That methodology doesn't work. I know that methodology, I came from there," said Kasiram, who has been a prosecutor for 12 years and at 37 is one of the youngest of the organization's senior managers.
More than 90% of callers in a recent South African television station poll supported the Scorpions. In contrast, 48% of South Africans believe that most police are corrupt, and only 22% trust the police and military, according to polls. One survey of police showed that even the police did not trust the police: 92% of officers thought that corruption within the force is a serious problem.
Kasiram was one of the Scorpions' early recruits. A policeman's daughter in a small town in apartheid South Africa, she used to go to court with her father. "That's the one I want to be," she thought, looking at the prosecutor laying out a person's crimes.
But in the murky chaos of the criminal justice system, putting crooks in jail turned out to be difficult. Often, as a conventional prosecutor, she had not received evidence from police that she needed.
The Scorpions, Kasiram said, work long hours, but love their jobs and are more often successful than police. According to Redpath, of 500,000 cases sent to prosecutors by police each year, about 200,000 are returned for want of evidence.
"When I get my conviction, I get immense joy from putting the correct facts before the court," said Kasiram, a petite, pin-neat woman of Indian descent. "I'm a prosecutor and not a persecutor. I have to see that justice is done. That is my passion."