The death penalty, otherwise known as capital punishment, has long been the subject of intense debate. As a government-sanctioned practice designed to put criminals to death as punishment for their heinous crimes, no other subject has divided more administrations.
This week, following the rape and murder of UCT student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, at the hands of a South African Post Office worker, the topic has reared its head again – with unprecedented fervour.
An online petition calling for a referendum on the capital punishment to be reinstated for those convicted of violent crimes, including crimes against women and children, garnered over half a million signatures.
Police statistics show that over 3000 women are murdered in South Africa each and every year, and around 50 000 more are victims of sexual assault. Responding to a string of recent reports detailing the gruesome crimes against women in the country, political representatives, civil rights groups and South African citizens have called upon the government to take action.
At a recent press conference the Minister of Justice, Ronald Lamola, addressed the recent murders, the public response, and the call for the death penalty to be reinstated. Those in favour of seeing criminals swing for their crimes, however, may be disappointed.
At the aforementioned press conference, Minister Lamola said that the question of bringing the death penalty back would have to be discussed by the cabinet.
The Bill of Rights, however, which provides the tapestry of human rights for all South Africans, protected under law, enshrines the right to life for all. This is not something that can easily be removed through a referendum.
The Minister of Justice pointed out that, specifically, the constitution is structured “to protect us from our own whims” and to ensure that all are equal before the law.
Now that's a slippery slope argument if we've ever heard one.
Based on statistics from last year, fifty-six countries from around the globe have retained the death penalty – and South Africa isn’t one of them. The call for it to be reinstated, however, has been growing stronger.
The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), African Covenant (ACO), African Transformation Movement (ATM) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) are all currently in favour of bringing back the death penalty, believing that it will act as a sufficient enough deterrent to criminals.
In the past, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) have also supported the death penalty. Both, however, have cooled on the subject over the years. EFF spokesperson, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, has stated that only Africans would be punished by the death penalty, and that it is not a sufficient enough deterrent.
Some conservative members of the DA have supported the death penalty in the past, but party leadership has never endorsed it. Likewise, the ANC has never entertained the notion – not even to garner votes.
The South African public, on the other hand, may be more open to the idea. A 2014 opinion poll, for example, confirmed that 76% of millennium generation South Africans support re-introduction of the death penalty.
With our crime rate at an unparalleled, abnormal high, many people have suggested that capital offences such as murder, rape, espionage, treason, crimes against humanity and genocide be dealt with in a more permanent manner. Put the criminals to death, and solve the problem once and for all.
57 people are killed in South Africa, each and every day. We are inundated with terrifying news in every direction. People are fleeing our shores in droves, seeking safer, more prosperous lives abroad. The media feeds into our fears and insecurity, reminding us of how violent, lawless and savage the world beyond our burglar bars can get.
At face value, the death penalty is the most terrifying sentence any person could be given. It is widely believed that the mere threat of this would be effective in deterring criminals, more so than incarceration. When we take into account that some of the most vile and merciless rapists and murderers in South Africa often receive reduced sentences due to overcrowding in our prisons, it’s easy to understand why people would feel that way.
It’s a well-documented fact that the majority of released inmates will go on to commit further crimes, and an unpopular suggestion has often been made is that a life in prison may be more comfortable than the lives they lead as free men on the outside.
In this case, we may have created a system in which it benefits criminals to continuously commit crime and live off of the tax payer.
This suggestion certainly has its champions. Dr Norman Mabasa is one example, who, in 2012, was the Medical Chief of the South African Medical Association.
After one of SA’s senior dermatologists, Dr John Moche, was gunned down six years ago, Mabasa advocated for the return of capital punishment.
Kill with impunity, and you will be killed. That is the powerful message conveyed to criminals.
Of course, it’s not that easy, and it’s long been one of the more divisive topics across the country. Even those who have been pro-abortion have been anti-death penalty.
It could be said that the argument around the death penalty itself often distracts us from the real causes behind many of the crimes being committed.
Clare Ballard, head of the penal reform programme of Lawyers for Human Rights, echoed the sentiment eloquently enough back in April, in the week leading up to this year's elections:
With emotions running high, there aren’t too many people inclined to agree. People want swift, harsh justice, and they want violent criminals to be exterminated.
Murder, rape, common and indecent assault, street muggings, car hijackings, house break-ins, home invasions, pickpocketing, corrupt police, etc. The crimes themselves have come to epitomize our perceptions of South Africa. Are we safe? Are our children safe? Our loved ones?
We hear these statements day in and day out, from the people we know and all over the news and media. Prison, as a form of deterrence and rehabilitation, is mostly counterproductive and ineffective, so what’s the next solution to the problem?
The response is usually a call for the death penalty, for those guilty of hideous crimes to be hanged by their necks until dead.
But perhaps, according to many people, this simply isn’t the right way forward. President Ramaphosa himself, while hosting a Q&A session on Twitter back in April, had this to say:
So, he’s clearly against it, and so are many other people. Because, let’s face it, there are some moral problems with the system.
The first thing to consider is that capital punishment, as stated above, is in direct conflict with the constitution. Next is that there seems to be no credible scientific evidence to support the idea that the death penalty actually deters criminal behaviour. Thirdly, how would we go about trusting an intensely corrupt government to use this power responsibly? The government of old certainly exploited it for their own selfish political gains, and why wouldn’t any other?
Some feel that to reinstate the death penalty would be to brutalize the whole of society. It implicates us all, as the government acts on our behalf, in the same kind of violence we want criminals to be executed for. Maybe it’s time to admit the truth; that we want the death penalty back because it makes us feel better, and not because it necessarily solves any problems. It serves to satisfy our yearning for swift and merciless vengeance, but offers little long-term retributive value.
The nation, however, still needs and waits for an effective justice system. As crime grows by the day, in greater and greater violence, the people are desperate for solutions. The call for the death penalty has begun to symbolize our sense of hopelessness, that everything is lost, and that we need to burn it all down in order to salvage something.
So, what is a lawless country to do?