“Will reinstating the death penalty solve South Africa’s high crime rate?”
In response to the article regarding the death penalty, Servamus received the following thought-provoking article on this topic, which was originally published by the author, Sgt Stephen Clark (acting in his personal capacity) on his C-3 Community Crime Cooperative Facebook page (in August 2013). It has been updated and edited. Ed.
Everyone who has read any part of literature about, let alone lived through the period of "Apartheid" can tell you about the restrictions on the media when reporting about crime. My father was a journalist from the mid-60s until the mid-70s and I can still recall stories where he attended a crime scene and was warned by the SAP not to report on it. My mother who worked at Stannic on Smith Street was caught up in an armed robbery around that time. Barely a line was printed in the daily newspapers. We simply didn't hear about crime because it wasn't reported on, and we didn't have the numerous communication devices we have now to “share” every incident. Many laws had an influence on crime: Pass laws, influx control. Certain members of our population were simply not allowed to be in one place or another. Criminals existed and certainly did operate. A thread I am going to explore is whether we want that level of law back. Everything in this world is linked - you can't have one and not the other.
Between 1910 and 1989, South Africa officially executed 3840 people, of whom around 130 were political activists convicted of treason, sedition, murder or even sabotage. People were also executed for other crimes including rape with aggravating circumstances and armed robbery with aggravating circumstances.
The South African population was 17.4 million in 1960, growing to 22 million by 1970, 44 million in 2000 and 55 million in 2015. Crime is a consequence of any population increase when there is not enough work for everyone; resources are getting scarce and the chance of having a higher ratio of "bad" people than "good" people rises proportionally.
The levels of violence in crime have not increased by any dramatic level. It may be argued that for the last decade or so we have had a massive increase in farm murders. However, during the 80s, the number of murders was still alarmingly high due to faction fighting and general unrest. People have done pretty bad things to each other throughout our history. Currently, in the history of the planet, we are actually at our most peaceful: since the 70s there has been a steady decline in conflict-related deaths and, despite the terrorism threat, the world in general is a pretty safe place.
We have also changed our way of thinking about things, such as beating schoolchildren. Some may say this is because we have gotten soft, others say that we have learned more respect for each other. What I can tell you is that in the South African context in 1995, the Constitutional Court ruled that capital punishment (the death penalty) was cruel, inhuman and degrading. Little of this was due to political issues - as noted earlier, only 130 people were executed for political crimes.
Maybe it was the evolution of us as a people and the embracing of international standards of human rights that made it happen.
See, the first right in the South African Bill of Rights is the right to life. You must understand what that means. Essentially, of every right you have, the supreme one is the right to stay alive - that is surely the most primal, most basic and most precious. This right is supreme and thus the principle behind the abolition of the death penalty. If we look briefly at self-defence, that is something else entirely. You are preserving your own life from an immediate mortal unlawful threat. The law prescribes that once the threat has ceased/passed, so does your right to defence. Hence, execution is viewed by some as a "revenge killing" and in a spiritual sense, serves no purpose. It is argued that once arrest and incarceration occur, the threat has passed. The offender has no more opportunity to harm us; hence our "right" to defend ourselves from him/her is also passed.
To remove that one right to life is a very big shift of the line in the sand. Its removal changes a heap of laws and the precipitation is something you won't like. Trust me. As one example, remember section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977, the power to use force, to shoot in self-defence? Under the current Constitution, a part of that law was repealed. The power of a policeman to shoot to effect an arrest. If a suspect is fleeing, we may shoot to stop him running away - I could even shoot you for theft of a bicycle or stock theft (excluding poultry). That's not a bad thing, you might say ... until that suspect is you or your son, a little tipsy, driving home late one night, feeling a bit belligerent and a missing a rear number plate. Removing that right starts limiting all sorts of rights to bodily integrity. If your life is not protected under law, what about you is? We can regress to a draconian Gestapo arrangement if you want to, but the law still has equal application.
In several comment threads about this topic, I have given the following statement. Most people say they have no faith in the police or justice system. Yet, you want to give us the power over instant, no trial, life and death? You can't have it both ways. If you don't trust me or my colleagues, don't give me that power.
What I have realised is that people often say things in a knee jerk reaction. They are afraid, hurt or angry, and our emotions sometimes get the better of us. The problem lies with many of us not really knowing what we believe. Take the example of mothers who swear blindly that nobody would ever lay a finger on their little darlings, including themselves. However, in a different context, we're demanding criminals be hung from the neck until they're dead. I'm not equating your kiddies to murderers but the same principle applies. If you are ready to sign off someone's life, a small spank on a ten-year-old's butt is hardly a crisis.
The laws of the land are not going to change. The government is not going to hold a referendum to "bring it back". Where we are as a people, a society and community is reflected in our Constitution. Killing off criminals has not proven to prevent crime. Ask America. If you want a deterrent, convict me to life imprisonment without parole in an underground facility where I will never see the sun, a tree, a flower or grass ever again. I would rather have you hang me.
When I first wrote this article in 2013, the Mail & Guardian reported just then that the Minister for Correctional Services was appealing to build seven new prisons to combat overcrowding and make way for longer-serving individuals. I have no idea how far he has gotten in the past four years. The problem of overcrowding comes from the awaiting-trial prisoners, not those serving sentences (see the related article in Servamus: April 2017). The courts need more resources to speed up trials, for which we need more detectives to conclude investigations and more prosecutors to dedicate to the conduct of those cases in court. For now, the minimum sentence rule is working. You commit X crime, you get Y sentence. That's it. Courts are compelled to put bad guys away for longer periods. The massive challenge with a bigger catch 22 is that far too many wanted bad crooks are getting bail way too easily. I personally know of a recent matter in my area, where a certain suspect has been arrested three times for the same offence of house robbery, but has been out on bail at each arrest. Who is ultimately responsible or accountable if that man murders my wife tonight? The word from communities is they will make someone accountable. Do we really want that course of events?
Relying on Correctional Services to rehabilitate offenders and change their minds about crime may, to some, be a bit touchy and a bit of a pipe dream. The DNA Act was passed three years ago, but only recently have samples begun to be taken at station level and a database gained from existing convicts. It has been agreed that offenders have a high chance of reoffending; thus the Act, which causes fear in the community, both where the perpetrator lived or where he operated. Scars run deep. No need to convince anyone of that. After talking to a few people, the "life without parole" option seems the best, but that doesn't help me tonight when that guy is out on bail.
I believe that if you feel a person must be executed, you should be willing to look him in the eye at Pretoria Central Prison, put a bag over his head, put a noose around his neck and pull the lever yourself. You must watch him cry and pray and beg for forgiveness. You must hear the thump and crack as his neck snaps and smell the fluids as his body loses control of his bowels and bladder. Now some people believe that they would happily do just that. But I feel their reasoning is based on anger and revenge, not justice.
There are two types of people in this world. Those who can kill and live with what it does to your soul and those who can't.
Essentially we are supposed to be the good people. If there were more of us the need to hang wouldn't exist. We therefore need to behave like good people. Search our hearts and minds. There is a lot we can do as a society before a crook does a deed, gets caught, tried, convicted and hanged. A lot more.
Sgt Stephen Clark