Why the death penalty isn’t the solution in SA
THE UNACCEPTABLY high incidence of violent crime has resulted in vociferous demands for the reinstatement of the death penalty.
Some regard this penalty as a magic wand that will resolve the very serious problems we are confronted with in relation to the criminal justice system in dealing with rampant violence.
Furthermore, opinion polls suggest significant support for the penalty’s reinstatement.
There are cogent arguments for and against it.
The arguments against the death penalty are:
There is no conclusive evidence that it is more of a deterrent than life imprisonment. Charles Dickens, the famous 19th-century novelist, claimed robbery was not infrequently committed in the shadow of the scaffold.
The death penalty is an irrevocable punishment. In the US, there are about 12 recorded cases in which people who were executed were subsequently found innocent. The most notorious English case is that of Timothy Evans, hanged for a crime committed by mass sex murderer, John Christie.
The death penalty is a barbaric punishment that depraves all who are involved.
In heterogeneous countries like South Africa and the US, it has been established that there is invariably a racial bias in the imposition of the death penalty.
It is an arbitrary punishment since it is not imposed consistently. It depends, inter alia, on the judge’s disposition to the death penalty and the quality of the defence available.
The death penalty is morally, philosophically and theologically questionable. The great philosophers and theologians of the contemporary world have profound reservations about its application. Eminent thinkers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Archbishop William Temple were opposed to it.
The most powerful argument in favour of the ultimate penalty is that of retribution. When unspeakable crimes are committed, society demands retribution and this can be satisfied only by proponents of the death penalty with the ultimate punishment.
Lord Denning, one of the greatest judges of the 20th century, premised his support for this punishment on retribution.
But however great the demand for retribution may be, it is my submission that it is outweighed by the six arguments set out above.
The apartheid government used the death penalty as a cogent weapon in its suppression of freedom fighters.
The Constitutional Court decided in the landmark Makwanyane case that the death penalty is incompatible with the crucial rights set out in the constitution.
Most informed and perceptive commentators are of the opinion that the reinstatement of the death penalty would not instantaneously or, even over a period of time, resolve the serious crime problem.
What is required is a more effective, better resourced criminal justice system and a police force that is competent and not corrupt.
What is also necessary is the socio-economic upliftment of millions of people who are poor, unemployed and live in appalling conditions.
According to the South African Survey (2010-11), 36.5 percent of our population are unemployed.
Grinding poverty and people who eke out an existence in the informal settlements are the metaphorical breeding grounds for violent crime.
In effect, the call for the reinstatement of the death penalty is a red herring.
The real problems must be tackled if we are to radically reduce crime in our society.
George Devenish Emeritus professor, University of KwaZulu-Natal
THE OFFENCE OF POVERTY: A man takes a break from rebuilding his shack in Kya Sand. It was ravaged by fire together with 800 others. The writer says relentless penury is the breeding ground for delinquency and violence.