Special Investigating Units

One of the most powerful and beautiful politicians in history was Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen.1 Not just sensual, dazzling and alluring,2 she was also highly intelligent (speaking as many as a dozen languages) and educated in mathematics, philosophy and astronomy. She was a powerful orator as well.3

However, Cleopatra was also corrupt, power hungry and cunning – and evil, it seems, for she had a hand in the murder of at least three of her siblings. She eventually ended her life in a suicide pact with her lover, Mark Antony, in 30 B.C. Her chosen method of death was the bite of a cobra.4

Knowing this, it might bring a smile that the logo symbol of our Special Investigation Unit is a cobra. Its mission is to fight corruption, fraud, malpractice and maladministration. The accompanying slogan is, appropriately, ‘Poised to Strike Against Corruption’.5

What happens is that, in terms of the Special Investigating Units and Special Tribunals Act 1996, the State President issues proclamations (in the Government Gazette) on any matter which he deems necessary to be investigated. These include, by the way:

  • serious maladministration in connection with the affairs of any State institution;
  • improper or unlawful conduct by employees of any State institution;
  • unlawful appropriation or expenditure of public money or property;
  • unlawful, irregular or unapproved acquisitive act, transaction, measure or practice having a bearing upon State property;
  • intentional or negligent loss of public money or damage to public property;
  • unlawful or improper conduct by any person which has caused or may cause serious harm to the interests of the public or any category thereof.

So far, there have been over a hundred such proclamations.6

The SIU works with its own forensic and investigative officers, and has extensive powers to subpoena, search, seize, and interrogate witnesses. Where criminal conduct is uncovered, it will bring the matter to the attention of its partners, the South African Police Services, as well as the National Prosecuting Authority, and it works closely with the Asset Forfeiture Unit as well. If civil proceedings are to follow from an investigation, these are heard by a Special Tribunal.

A. The Unit

  1. It is a criminal offence to interfere with, or hinder or obstruct a Special Investigating Unit in the performance of any of its functions in terms of the Act.7

  2. If you refuse to answer any question put to you by a Special Investigating Unit you commit an offence.8

  3. If you refuse to produce any book, document or object after having been required to do so by the Special Investigation Unit, it is an offence.9

  4. If you destroy any article or dispose of any asset relating to, or in anticipation of, any investigation or proceedings in terms of the Act, you commit a crime.10

  5. If you fail (without reasonable excuse) to appear before a Special Investigating Unit after having been duly ordered to do so, you commit an offence.11

B. The Tribunal

  1. If you have been duly subpoenaed to attend any proceedings before a Special Tribunal, or to produce any book document or object, and (without reasonable excuse) fail to do so, you commit a criminal offence.12

  2. The Tribunal can exclude the public from a hearing (as a court can, with in-camera13 hearings) and direct that no information about it be published, not even the identity of any witness or party to the proceedings. It is an offence to fail to comply with such a directive.14

  3. If you do anything in relation to a Special Tribunal which, if done in relation to a court of law, would constitute contempt of court, it is a crime.15

  4. It you disobey a subpoena, you can be arrested and brought before the Tribunal. It is possible that you can give ‘recognisance’ (like bail) as a guarantee that you will attend the hearing, or produce the documents, etc. If you then further fail to appear, or produce the documents, etc., it is also a criminal offence.16

  1. Although she was Macedonian Greek, not Egyptian. 

  2. Not unlike the film star who has most famously portrayed her on the screen, Elizabeth Taylor. 

  3. – ‘Cleopatra’. 

  4. There is some ulterior symbolism (or wishful thinking on her part) in this: in Egypt, the cobra goddess Wadjet was seen as the giver of food and immortality. See – ‘The Ultimate Cobra Snake Facts Guide’. There has been a suggestion that the snake was an asp, not a cobra, but the latter is the generally accepted reptile. 


  6. See the full list, and the Proclamations in question, at – ‘Investigations’. 

  7. Section 12(1)a. 

  8. Section 12(1)b. 

  9. Section 12(1)b. 

  10. Section 12 (1)e. 

  11. Section 12(2)a. 

  12. Section 12(2)b. 

  13. Which, in Latin, means ‘inside the room’. This has nothing to do with photography, although that is why a camera is called that. Before the days of digital cameras, at least, a camera was an enclosed space. 

  14. Section 12(1)c. 

  15. Section 12(1)d. 

  16. Section 8(6).