Reintroducing death penalty will be ‘misplaced, dangerous’

The debate on the death penalty has resurfaced. Picture: Armand Hough/Independent Newspapers

The debate on the death penalty has resurfaced. Picture: Armand Hough/Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 14, 2024


By Mary de Haas

Recent calls to bring back the death penalty are misplaced and dangerous. There is no credible evidence that it reduces crime, but there are countless examples of its selective use, and its leading to the deaths of innocent people.

Pro-death penalty sentiments reflect a lack of understanding about why we have abnormally high levels of violent crime, which is a product of a near-broken criminal justice system and our failure to address our violent legacy and improve the quality of life significantly.

We have become a criminalised state in which personal enrichment, not service, dominates governance, and politicians may participate in criminal syndicates themselves, with impunity.

In abolishing the death penalty, South Africa joined the growing ranks of democracies that had made the transition. The right to life and dignity are core constitutional principles, and must remain so, despite the government itself routinely flouting them.

Repressive countries with the worst human rights records implement most death sentences. It is known that its selective application often results from political misuse of power, and prejudices linked to race and even sexual orientation. In apartheid South Africa, black men would hang for raping white women, but white men raped black women with impunity. Even in established democracies, the poor are more likely to be executed, if only because they generally lack quality legal services.

From the handling of crime scenes to court proceedings, human error leads to innocent people being found guilty, as was the case with James Hanratty, hanged in the UK for a 1961 murder and rape he did not commit.

While DNA evidence has saved people, it has also led to false guilty verdicts for serious crimes. In the early 2000s, independent DNA analysis showed serious errors in the Houston (Texas) police forensic laboratory testing, which led to reforms, including far better oversight (which South Africa lacks)

Were South Africa to reintroduce the death penalty, there is little doubt that it would be poor people – not criminal politicians – who would face the gallows, as they are the visible face of crime, deployed by the invisible multiracial syndicates using them as hitmen and hijackers; they are seldom charged and, if they are, can afford the best lawyers.

Violent crime has a long history in South Africa, and it was allowed to fester in deprived areas. Cape Flat gangs date from forced removals from District Six, and complicity between police, prisons and drug dealers. In the 1980s, violence intensified as guns flooded into black areas as part of the government’s strategy against liberation movements. The damage done was greater than the many thousands of deaths, as children who witnessed the carnage grew up traumatised for life. Not nearly enough has been done to address the psychological damage done to the victims whose socialisation has facilitated their recruitment as killers in gangs and syndicates.

The apartheid state was an organised crime syndicate, and the democratic government introduced its own beneficiaries, allowing it to flourish with impunity and fuel general crime, as drug dependants steal to feed their addiction. For most historically disadvantaged people, little has changed in terms of quality of life in 30 years, including in crucial areas such as education (some are worse than apartheid) and general community development, including support for families and youth (the state of apartheid-era hostels is a prime example).

Poverty does not necessarily lead to crime, but it facilitates recruitment by syndicates. However, it is the appalling failure of our criminal justice system that fuels violent crime, starting with the police whose ranks are ridden with gross corruption and in which promotion is based on nepotism and not competence. Bribery buys recruitment. Good police suffer at the hands of corrupt management, which may endanger their lives.

Policing, starting with crime intelligence, is used for political ends – including to cover up for murderous politicians – not to address crime.

Guns disappear from police hands, and no one is held accountable. The private security industry is awash with guns and unregistered or non-compliant companies – some of them linked to politicians and taxi bosses – and badly regulated. There are serious problems in the prosecution services, including corruption and failure to exercise proper oversight of investigations. Police members kill and torture with impunity, as the Independent Police Investigative Directorate fails its mandate. With credible reports that some staff endanger the lives of police members by colluding with criminals, it should immediately be placed under judicial oversight.

Surely, it is obvious that dealing with violent crime starts with fixing our near broken criminal justice system? This must be the priority of our new government, for if it does not happen, there is little hope for a safer and more peaceful South Africa.

* De Haas is a violence monitor in KZN, an honorary Research Fellow at the University of KZN’s School of Law and a member of the Navi Pillay Research Group on justice and human rights

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.