Friday, November 03, 2006

South Africans Say: Hang 'Em High

[Analysis] Majority of South Africans in favor of death penalty

On the surface in South Africa, there are quiet towns, people out jogging and cycling in the early morning, and sleepy Sunday afternoons in suburbia filled with the lullaby of moaning lawn mowers and a cricket game on TV. But behind the happy shouting of children in swimming pools, or a movie flock emerging from a cinema, is the cancer that is eating this society from within: crime.50 South Africans are murdered daily, hundreds more are raped on a daily basis. How do South Africans respond to this slaughter? Almost 77 percent of South Africans polled want an urgent referendum on the death penalty. Crime, they say, is out of control.

The news bulletins have ample evidence of this. Cash in transit heists have shot up by 70 percent this year. Criminals are armed with R5 (government issue for military purpose) machine guns while security guards have small pistols capable of spitting only one or two rounds a second.The newspapers have weekly spreads on the front page of someone else in the city having been murdered during the night. And reports of entropy from law enforcement haven't helped the situation. In one city a man drove to a police station to find out why an urgent call had gone unanswered, and found policemen glued to a late-night soft core pornography program. A crime elsewhere was followed up by a television station when, after three months had passed, no file had been opened, and no policemen had either written a report or taken any other action. And in a black settlement, residents recently took the law into their own hands when they beat a serial rapist that was traumatizing that community, to death, in the street. They also killed his friend.

94 percent of white South Africans were in favor of the referendum, while 72 percent of blacks said the same thing. The age group most opposed to the referendum were in the 18-24 age group, with a maximum opposition of 30 percent, but each consecutive age group from then on (growing older) showed more support for the death sentence. Only 15.5 percent of people 50+ opposed the referendum.Barbara Holtmann is the project manager of the Crime-Preventiuon Centre of the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research. She called support for the death penalty a "most appalling response." She went on to point out: "People may call for it, but are they prepared to be hangmen?"

This is a convenient counterargument, especially for someone who probably has been unaffected by crime, or who perhaps feels her work is having an impact on society. It's certainly arguable that if half of one's family is murdered, and the murderer goes free, only to return to one’s home, what other way is there to stop this murderer from wiping out your family (and yourself) than by killing him (an act of self defense). I'd argue that plenty of traumatized South Africans who have seen loved ones killed with hammers and knives and worse, would be prepared to take an eye for an eye. Some of the most vulnerable and angry victims of crime in South Africa are white farmers, who live on far flung smallholdings, and have seen neighbors -- whole families -- wiped out by their own farm workers. The remainder have left South Africa in droves for the U.K., Canada and Australia.

I'm a South African that also supports the death penalty. I wish I didn't have to. It's a disgusting and horrible method, but it's aimed at eradicating the disgusting and horrible elements that haunt our society. The death penalty is meant to provide some resistance to the current uninhibited slaughter taking place. And while the idealists say that it hasn't been proved to work, or that it's simply morally wrong (I agree, it is) I wonder whether any of them have been hit by the savagery of wickedness, a daily slewing of stones into our society. It's time these stones were cast back at their throwers. And even if capital punishment does return, only a fraction of the murderers out there would be brought to just justice and a fraction of those might face a death penalty. Even so, I share the unsavory opinion that it appears a rational if extreme response to the otherwise one-sided carnage, at an extreme and unacceptable scale, that continues unabated in this country.

That said, and despite overwhelming popular support for the death penalty, the constitution of South Africa (which overwhelmingly enshrines and supports human rights for all its citizens, even and especially for minorities) forbids it, and to allow the death penalty, the constitution would have to be rewritten. In the near term, it seems particularly unlikely that the constitution would be rewritten (and an exception made to the declared human rights), and so there is an interesting anomaly. South Africa's constitution which was rewritten to protect the weak from oppression, now also protects the abominable and the monstrous from the retribution that most of their fellow citizens feel they deserve.

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