South Africa’s ‘Green Scorpions’ would seem to punch well above their weight – if you consider the stats in the recent national environmental compliance report.

Two significant official reports were issued last week. One, with national crime statistics, came from the South African Police Service. The other came from the department of environment, forestry and fisheries in the form of its 2018/19 national environmental compliance and enforcement report.

If you study the SAPS report you will spot a section on environmental crime. This, however, consists only of stats on poaching: rhino, abalone and so on. Other kinds of environmental crime are published in the compliance report, released at an environmental conference in Kimberley last week.

Heroes of this report are the ‘Green Scorpions’, members of a network of environmental compliance and enforcement officials working across SA. The network includes the environmental departments of national, provincial and municipal governments and entities like SANParks, Cape Nature, iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Eastern Cape Parks.


It is a tiny band compared with SAPS numbers: just over 3 000 environmental management inspectors. But they get through a considerable amount of work and, in some areas, appear to have a significant impact.

One of the most common issues they dealt with in the last year is the problem of people starting projects without the required environmental impact assessment. Other major environmental crimes they tackled included illegal hunting and illegal entry to national parks and other protected areas.

As you would imagine they also work extensively in the industrial sector, conducting 4 530 inspections last year, during which they found 5 263 issues of non-compliance. More than 150 of these inspections were in response to emergencies like the release of dangerous chemicals into the air.


One significant action was an ‘enforcement blitz’ at the Barberton Nature Reserve, to identify and combat illegal mining.

Apart from successfully setting up rehabilitation at various sites and opening 14 criminal cases against repeat offenders, non-compliant with environmental law, there was another major achievement. It was the first time members of SAPS and the HAWKS were involved, dispatching a large contingent to deal with land degradation issues.

Then there is training: for example, the DEA and Justice College jointly offered two courses during the year, helping some 40 prosecutors understand the ‘nature, scope and impact of environmental crime’. The many cases in which prosecutions fail or convictions are overturned on appeal, make clear that prosecutors need to gain confidence and skill. Otherwise they won’t be able to satisfy all the technicalities required for successful convictions.

Human rights warrior bows out

And that brings me to the sad news of Judge Jeremy Pickering’s retirement. This human rights warrior, a veteran of many brushes with the previous government and its apparatus for maintaining apartheid, was director of the Legal Resources Centre in Port Elizabeth before being appointed to the bench in 1992.

Over his 27 years as a judge based in Grahamstown, his decisions have always been a must-read. He did not gloss over injustices or abuse of any kind, personal or institutional, and he has an enviable writing style, making the facts clear and at times enthralling, and the legal issues completely comprehensible. He was particularly outraged by rape and other forms of violence against women, as well as abuse of the poor and powerless by officialdom.


One of his last criminal cases reads like a novel, and would certainly make for a gripping film. It concerned the Ndlovu rhino poaching gang, long suspected by the authorities. At last they made some fatal mistakes. Arrested and brought to trial, they faced Pickering who wrote three judgments on various aspects of the case, one running to almost 100 pages, before jailing them each for an effective 25 years.

The judgment was widely welcomed by environmental lawyers and activists, and is a model for anyone involved in the field. It is not only they, however, who will miss his presence on the bench.

  • Financial Mail, 19 September 2019