Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

The Death Penalty in South Africa

Graeme Simpson & Lloyd Vogelman

South Africa has the 3rd highest judicial execution rate in the world. Between 1980 and July 1989, 1109 people have been hanged in South Africa. This includes 39 prisoners who were executed in the first seven months of this year.

At the end of July 1989, a total of 283 prisoners were being held on death row at Pretoria Central Prison. 272 of these prisoners were black and 11 were white. According to the Minister of Justice, Kobie Coetsee, death row is 43,5% overcrowded. In March 1988, 53 people were on death row for politically related crimes.

The campaign against the death penalty in South Africa is rapidly gaining momentum. This is reflected by the growth of organisations concerned with the issue, and a consequent increase in public awareness and outrage at this legalised act of violence.

Popular Attitudes

However, popular support for the death penalty tends to vary over time and from community to community. In the same way, support for abolition of capital punishment is inconsistent. A marked increase in violent crime, for example, may help to heighten public support for capital punishment.

Regan Jakobus, chairperson of the Johannesburg chapter of the Society for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in South Africa, pointed out that public support for the abolition of capital punishment is still limited in South Africa.

"The main reason for this is that South Africans are uneducated about the death penalty and are not versed with what it means and how inhumane it is", he said. "People seem to think that there are only two alternatives - capital punishment or the release back into society of "dangerous killers"".

The most common reasons given by people who support the death penalty are: that it was the deserved punishment for certain crimes; that it acted as a deterrent to violent crime; and that it protected society by the permanent incapacitation of the offender.

Death Penalty as a Deterrent

The argument most commonly used in support of capital punishment is that it acts as a "deterrent" to violent crime. However, a report by Amnesty International claims that detailed research in the USA and other countries shows no evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. In some countries, such as Canada, the number of violent crimes actually decreased, rather than increasing, after the death penalty was abolished.

A United Nations study published in 1980 found that: "Despite much more advanced research efforts mounted to determine the deterrent value of the death penalty, no conclusive evidence has been obtained on its efficacy."

Similarly, in South Africa, Regan Jakobus suggests that there is no evidence to show that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to violent crime and considerable evidence suggests that this is in fact not the case.

What is more, this argument makes no common sense. When someone kills they don't think about the consequences of being apprehended - all they are likely to think about is escape. The prospect of dying for their crime is, therefore, hardly likely to act as a deterrent.

In South Africa, this is even less likely if we consider the fact that many of the "crimes" considered to be capital offenses are political acts of resistance. In a country where the majority are denied basic human rights, where, for many, the struggle for democracy is a life and death struggle in which sacrifice and possibly martyrdom are regarded as necessary consequences, capital punishment is merely one of many life threatening hazards confronting them in the fight for freedom.

"Just Retribution" - An Act of Revenge

The death penalty is little more than an act of revenge. Even many of those state officials who would acknowledge the lack of a deterrent effect of capital punishment, argue that it is a just punishment for the most serious of crimes.

Amnesty international rejects this approach: "Contemporary standards of justice, moreover, have rejected the notion that "just retribution" may be achieved by repeating the acts which society condemns. Just as criminal codes do not sanction the raping of rapists or the burning of arsonists' homes, still less is the deliberate taking of a life by the state an appropriate punishment for murder." In this way, Amnesty International suggests that executions are no more than judicially sanctioned killings.

It has been argued that the death penalty is the only way to acknowledge the pain and suffering of the family and friends of murder victims and to ensure just retribution for their loss. Yet an execution cannot restore life or lessen the loss to the victim's family. In fact executions often draw attention away from the victim and focus it on the prisoner being killed by the state instead. As a result, although some families of victims do express feelings of relief at the execution of the killer, many argue that no useful purpose is served by the death penalty.

It is also argued that both the experience of being under sentence of death, and the execution itself, are inhumane and may cause intense suffering. In this vein, Vogelman has described those incarcerated on Pretoria Central's death row as: "the living dead"!

Furthermore, the role of doctors in executions raises some key issues of medical ethics, since doctors are supposed to preserve life and not assist in removing it.

Executions of the Innocent

One of the strongest arguments against the death penalty is that it is irreversible and irrevocable and, despite the most stringent safeguards, may be inflicted on the innocent. A recent study in the US has produced evidence of 349 US cases in which innocent people were wrongly convicted of offenses which were punishable by death.

While the right to appeal reduces the risk of innocent people being sentenced to death, it should be noted that in South Africa, unlike in countries like Zimbabwe, an automatic right to appeal against the death penalty does not exist.

The Role of the Courts in South Africa

It is apparent that the criminal justice process cannot serve as a definitive safeguard against error, prejudice or injustice. This is evident in the South African legal system. By sentencing people to death, courts become agents of violence, reflecting rather than remedying the injustices in society. For example, Amnesty International reports that in the year from June 1982 to June 1983, of the 81 blacks convicted of murdering whites, 38 were hanged. By comparison, of the 52 whites convicted of killing whites, only 1 was hanged and of the 21 whites convicted of murdering blacks, none were hanged.

International Abolitionist Movement

The campaign to abolish the death penalty is not a new phenomenon. There were abolitionist movements in some states in the US as early as the early 19th century. Internationally, opposition to the death penalty became much more widespread during the 1950s and 1960s, in which period a number of countries abolished it. Historically, church groupings have been amongst the most outspoken opponents of the death penalty. The "Right to Life" and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights documents. There is growing international consensus that the death penalty is incompatible with these standards. In December 1971 the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 2857, in which it affirmed that:

... in order fully to guarantee the right to life, as provided for in article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the main objective to be pursued is that of progressively restricting the number of offenses for which capital punishment may be imposed, with a view to the desirability of abolishing this punishment in all countries.

The Campaign against the Death Penalty in South Africa

The campaign to abolish executions is comparatively young in South Africa. Yet in recent times, the campaign has gained considerable momentum. In particular, the plight of the "Sharpeville Six" who were saved from the gallows at the last minute, gained enormous international attention and this served to highlight the plight of others on death row and to conscientise the public about the issue.

According to Regan Jakobus, by the end of September 1989, the Society for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in South Africa will have functioning local branches in "every city where there is a branch of the Supreme Court empowered to administer the death sentence."

If there was any criticism of the campaign to abolish the death penalty in the past, then it was that, at a public level, the issue remained largely a white middle class concern. This is no longer the case. In particular, the campaign to "stop the hangings" has been strengthened and advanced by the "Save the Patriots Campaign", which has raised awareness of the issue amongst the youth and other black township residents.

For the Abolition Society, the campaign spans all political convictions and other beliefs. As Jakobus pointed out: "The Society speaks for everyone on death row without exception. We are opposed to the death penalty."

In all its different manifestations, the campaign to stop all executions is primarily an education and publicity campaign at this stage. The Abolition Society produces pamphlets, booklets and regular news briefs on the issue. In addition, the Society organises regular public meetings and monthly pickets, as well as counselling for those on death row. "Pickets are organised as soon as we receive information that someone is scheduled to hang on a particular day."

The "Save the Patriots Campaign" has concentrated on publicising who is on death row for "political offenses", has made public a full list of all those who have already hanged and helped to provide social support for both the inmates of death row and their families. When all the legal channels have been exhausted, public appeal, both nationally and internationally, is the only hope of saving those destined for the gallows.

Alternatives to the Death Penalty

One of the central educational tasks of those organisations opposed to the death penalty, is to begin to look at alternatives to it. The South African government have barely considered this, although in countries where executions have been stopped, it remains a high priority.

For many people, even the alternative of life in prison is not an acceptable one. For these reasons, the Society for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in South Africa is attempting to establish a Commission to explore alternatives to capital punishment. It is hoped to have a conference on this subject in July 1990.

The solutions to violent crime remain social and political rather than merely judicial. For example, in South Africa, on average more than one in every two whites homes has a gun. It is common knowledge that the availability of handguns and firearms contributes to an escalation of violent crime.

In the final analysis, social justice, equality and the abolition of oppressive discrimination, will do more to reduce violent crime than the death penalty could ever hope to achieve.


The death penalty is a cruel and inhuman punishment, brutalising to all who are involved in the process. It is a system which is irreversible and may be prone to error and the execution of the innocent. However, there has been no investigation into the system of capital punishment in South Africa for more than fifty years! Furthermore, in South Africa, executions undoubtedly add to the negative perceptions of the judiciary amongst the majority of South Africans.

Finally, judicial executions merely construe the courts as additional agents of violence in the South African scenario. They create the impression that death and violence are acceptable solutions to the problems which confront us and that retribution in the form of such killings is justifiable.

For these reasons, the Society for the Abolition has appealed to the new acting State President, FW De Klerk to:

  1. "Institute a moratorium on all executions;
  2. To set up a judicial Commission of Enquiry into the use of the death penalty in South Africa; and
  3. To investigate more appropriate methods of punishment which seek to cure rather than destroy."

For many of the "living dead" this represents their last hope of avoiding the gallows. For many more, political martyrs and murderers alike, this new found public moral outrage is already too late.

Graeme Simpson is a founder and former Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Lloyd Vogelman is a founder and former Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

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