JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's police minister promised on Thursday to find a new head for the force's "Hawks" investigative team and address its reputation as "a unit with low morals", seeking to draw a line under months of legal and political wrangling.
Fikile Mbalula named a new interim chief and said a full-time replacement would be found by the end of the year, a day after calling off his ministry's legal fight to keep the Hawks' last leader in office.
The tussle over the Hawks' leadership has become an emblematic case in what activists say is a broader fight against widespread mismanagement. The government has defended the Hawks, saying it is a vital force in tackling corruption.
Two pro-democracy groups launched a lawsuit in 2016, calling for the removal of the powerful force's last appointed leader, Berning Ntlemeza, saying he was unfit for office.
Rights and opposition activists say the government has used the Hawks to discredit people, including former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who fall out of favour with President Jacob Zuma and his inner circle.
The government led by the African National Congress (ANC) has regularly dismissed the allegations. But Mbalula acknowledged the force's reputation had been damaged.
"Society perceive Hawks as a unit with low morals and that is one aspect that must be corrected going forward," he told a press conference.
The Hawks would continue to fight crime and corruption and "spare no one irrespective of their status in society," added the minister, who only got the job late last month in a contentious reshuffle that also saw Gordhan ousted and replaced.
He named Lieutenant General Yolisa Matakata as the Hawks' new interim leader.
Her predecessor Ntlemeza was appointed Hawks chief in 2015, but two local non-governmental organisations, Freedom Under Law and the Helen Suzman Foundation, applied to the High Court to have him removed on the grounds that he was unfit for the office.
The court ruled in March that the appointment was unlawful and must be revoked.
Mbalula on Wednesday withdrew an appeal lodged by the former minister of police to fight the court order to remove Ntlemeza.
The High Court on Wednesday dismissed Ntlemeza's request to be granted the right to appeal against the ruling.
The Hawks - full name the Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation - played a role in a graft case against then-finance minister Gordhan that was withdrawn last year.
Reporting by Nqobile Dludla; Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Heavens