Why I asked Zuma about the death penalty

Graham McIntosh says SA too tolerant of huge numbers of murders committed every year


In Parliament on Thursday 15 March 2012, I asked the President, in a supplementary question, whether he would consider appointing a Judicial Commission of  Enquiry into firstly, whether giving the High Courts the freedom, after due and proper legal process, to impose the sentence of a death penalty, would act as a deterrent in reducing our unacceptably high levels of murder and violent crime and, secondly, to come with proposals on how Parliament could bring changes to the Constitution to give effect to bringing in this sentencing option.

Why did I ask this question?

I, like the majority of South Africans continue to be deeply shocked at the high rate of murders in South Africa.  Since 1994 we are coming close to 300 000  -- some five or six soccer stadiums full of people --- who have been murdered.  Furthermore, crimes of passion or drunken brawls are motives for these murders, but very many of these murders have been grossly violent and involve rape, elderly people and children, or have been committed to obtain property and goods, to silence witnesses, to kill policemen, to obtain body parts for muti purposes or have been murders and assassinations committed by "hired guns". To ignore the arbitrary deaths of that number of innocent people, while reciting the mantras of human rights, is contradictory and irresponsible.  We cannot turn a blind eye to this terrible injustice against the lives of innocent victims.

It may seem paradoxical but the death penalty is a signal from society that it so values the lives of its law abiding citizens, that any other citizen who arrogates to herself the right to take innocent and God-given life, must know that the courts may impose a death sentence for that crime. 

Another reason why, as a citizen who is committed to the rule of law, I am distressed by the absence of a death penalty is the fact that communities, individuals and, even the Police, are effectively applying the death penalty.  It is courts, after due process, that should impose the death penalty.  Outraged communities, who are ‘gatvol' at criminal activity, take action and kill criminals.   Policemen whose colleagues are attacked and murdered, also, with the support of public opinion, shoot first, and I fear, deliberately do so.  I find this completely unacceptable, but because there is no freedom for the High Court to impose the death sentence, I find it completely understandable.

The death penalty and murder are two completely different things.  To use the word "kill" to describe both, is a careless use of language, if not a mischievous use.   The death penalty follows arrest, investigation, a rigorous court process, including cross examination, pleas in mitigation, the right to appeal to a higher court and then to the State President.  The murder victim is not granted that privilege.  The convicted murderer also receives counselling and his or her death by hanging is quick and clinical. 

The abuse of the death penalty for political, religious or ethnic purposes, should not mean rejecting it for the common law crime of murder.  Similarly, the question of a miscarriage of justice in convicting and hanging the wrong person, is a serious concern, but not so serious, that it can be allowed to be a stumbling block in actions to bring down our extremely high murder rate.

More efficient court processes will obviously help, but the real deterrent for murderers and to satisfy society's requirement for justice is the death sentence.  The extradition case of the two convicted murderers from Botswana and who have fled to South Africa, is a further proof of the deterrent effect.  In Botswana there is a very low incidence of violent crime including murder.

The ghoulish relish with which the abolitionists like to describe the death cells, depict the hanging room and graphically dwell on the process of execution, while obtusely neglecting the horrors of the victim's death, is proof that a death sentence is indeed a deterrent.  The energy with which friends and relatives seek to appeal a death sentence and have it set aside, is further proof of how effective a deterrent it is. 

It would be a first prize to live in a society without the death penalty, but in the face of our levels of violent crime and murder we need to give our courts the freedom to impose the death penalty.  It may take a generation or two to reach a level of law, order and a shared social contract, before we can do away with a death penalty.

Graham McIntosh is a COPE Member of Parliament.  He writes in his personal capacity.

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