Coffin case: Excessive sentences do not serve justice

John Kane-Berman says those convicted of murder have gotten away with less

The acting director-general of the Government Communication and Information System, Phumla Williams, says that the sentencing of the two men convicted of forcing a man into a coffin "has restored hope in the country's criminal justice system".

 Arguably, however, it has undermined that system in that the sentences imposed are heavier than the crime itself warrants. One of the men, Theo Martins Jackson, was given a sentence of 19 years' imprisonment, of which five were suspended, so that his effective sentence is 14 years. The other, Willem Oosthuizen, was given 16 years of which five were suspended, leaving an effective sentence of 11 years.

The main charge on which the two were convicted by the High Court, sitting in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, was attempted murder. They had forced Victor Mlotshwa into a coffin and threatened to pour petrol on him. The judge, Segopotje Sheila Mphahlele, said their behaviour showed they had intended to kill him.

The fear and terror that Mr Mlotshwa must have experienced defy description. That this was a wicked, depraved, and callous crime is beyond dispute.

 The sentences are nevertheless disproportionate. Last year Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to six years' imprisonment for the murder his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in 2013. In 2005 four youths, the so-called Waterkloof Four, were given 12 years for killing a man in Moreleta Park in Pretoria in 2001. Their victim was never identified. The magistrate who convicted them described them as "callous, cowardly killers without a shred of remorse, humanity, or conscience". This was, he added, "an inter-racial incident." An academic at the University of South Africa said that the sentence was "a bit on the harsh side, taking into account their ages (16) at the time the crime was committed". Others thought the sentence too light.

In the Middelburg case, nobody was killed. Yet the sentences are more than twice as heavy as that imposed on Mr Pretorius for murder. The sentence imposed on Mr Jackson in the Middelburg case is heavier than that handed down to the Waterkloof Four for murder. The sentence imposed on Mr Oosthuizen is only a year lighter than that handed down to the Waterkloof Four for murder.

Before sentence was handed down, Flip Buys, chairman of the Solidarity Movement, condemned the behaviour of the two men. They deserved, he said, to "face the full might of the law". Mr Buys argued that their behaviour "reinforced the ANC's stereotyping of Afrikaners and white people as cruel racists".  So it does.

James Masango, provincial leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) in Mpumalanga, welcomed the sentences. They sent "a strong message that racism in any shape or form will not be tolerated in South Africa". Justice had been "served". Supporters of the DA, along with supporters of the African National Congress (ANC), and of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), had been among those demonstrating outside the courtroom.

Even though the obvious racial component in the attack on Mr Mlotshwa may merit heavier sentences, it is doubtful that justice is served when sentences are out of proportion to the crime committed.  However brutally the victim was attacked and threatened, whatever terror he might have felt, he was not killed.  

All three of the trials in question were surrounded by extensive publicity and high emotions. In the Pistorius case, some commentators praised the judge for not allowing extraneous factors to influence her decision to impose a sentence that was widely criticised as too light. The Middelburg case was similarly surrounded by publicity, much emotion, and political demonstration. The ANC, the DA, and the EFF sang and danced outside the court after the verdict had been handed down.

 The punishments handed down to the two men have been widely welcomed. Given the nature of the crime and its racial component, this was to be expected. But whether their punishments actually fit the crime is a different question. Excessive sentences do not enhance the stature of the criminal justice system. Nor does DA support for such sentences enhance the stature of that party.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.