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  • Written by  Inter Press Service
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Calls for the Return of Capital Punishment in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG, Jun 7 (IPS) - Frustrated with what they see as increasing lawlessness in South Africa, leaders from political parties such as the Freedom Front Plus, the Christian Democratic Party and the Pro-Death Penalty Party are united in one cause: that capital punishment needs to be reinstated.

Still, those who worked hard to abolish the death penalty 11 years ago say they will push with equal force to maintain the ban. They point to a decrease in the country's murder rate over the past five years, and say South Africa's brutal apartheid history shows that too often, innocent people can be hanged by the state.

South Africa abolished the death penalty in 1995, a year after the demise of apartheid. But Pieter Uys, spokesman of the Pretoria-based Freedom Front Plus, told IPS it was a mistake to scrap the law.

"There are 18,000 murders a year in South Africa. That means there are 18,000 killers walking around with too few police looking for them," Uys said. "These criminals don't respect any form of life at all. The only solution is to bring back the death penalty. All the other solutions have failed."

The problem is particularly acute for white farmers, his party's voter base, Uys said. "In the last five years we've had 4,126 attacks on farms; 562 (white) farmers were killed...South Africa is the only place in the world where such murders happen."

Frustration combined with a perceived inaction by officialdom has led the Freedom Front Plus to call for a return to executions, he added.

"It's horrible. People don't know what to do anymore. People have demonstrated, they have written petitions and highlighted their plight in the media without any results," he said.

With cases of violent crime continually splashed on the front pages of newspapers, Uys's party is not the only one to call for the death penalty.

"It shouldn't be seen as retribution. It is to ensure the safety of society," said Theunas Botha, the national leader of the Christian Democratic Party.

Botha's party has campaigned for the return of capital punishment for years, so far with little result. The government will not allow a referendum on the death penalty, he said, because authorities fear it will be approved.

"If you are to have a referendum today, you will find that the overwhelming majority will support the reinstatement of the death penalty," Botha noted.

Moreover, Botha said his party believed that the threat of death can deter crime: "I lived in Britain from 1960 to 1970 when the death penalty was there. There was less crime. Since they took away the death penalty, you hear (about) all sorts of crimes, including murders. The police also didn't use to carry guns. Now they carry guns."

Botha could not provide statistics to back claims that capital punishment has deterred crime in Britain and South Africa. In fact, studies have failed to prove that capital punishment discourages crime, according to Amnesty International.

South Africa's overall crime rate is comparable to that of other developing countries, Interpol statistics indicate. The nation does, however, suffer from one of the highest per capita rates of violent crime in the world.

The murder rate in South Africa shot up at the onset of democracy 11 years ago; but after peaking around 2001, it began to fall.

Police statistics show that while 21,405 homicides were recorded in 2002/2003 in South Africa, 18,793 murders were committed between March 2004 and April 2005.

"(The) death penalty is premeditated murder. There is very little evidence to support that the death penalty can deter murder. It's a very weak and sloppy argument," said Marjorie Dobson, chairwoman of Khulumani Support Group, which campaigned for the abolition of capital punishment a decade ago.

A better way to prevent crime, Dobson suggested, was to confront the causes. "We studied people on death row and found that most of the killings happen haphazardly when (the perpetrators) are drunk," she said.

For Dobson, there's no justification to reinstate the death penalty. "Taking life is a cruel and inhuman punishment," she noted, that allows people to "wash their hands and let the state do the terrible function of the killing."

Despite the abolition of capital punishment nearly 11 years ago, some 63 prisoners technically remain on death row. When delivering the ruling that ended the practice, the constitutional court said the sentences of these prisoners should either be commuted to life imprisonment or reviewed with the possibility of parole.

The high court provided the chance of parole on the grounds that some prisoners might have been wrongfully jailed.

In its 1998 report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, identified more than 20,000 victims of human rights violations, including miscarriages of justice, which were committed between 1960 and 1994.

A spokesperson at the department of justice told IPS that authorities were dealing with the remaining death row cases by assessing each on its merits.

Botha said he believed no innocent person would be executed, were capital punishment to be reinstated.

"The death penalty should be handled in a special way. It should never be applied without proper witnesses and processes," he said. "Give the person a chance and opportunity to prove his innocence."

Betty Kumalo, a primary school teacher based near Johannesburg, is not convinced by Botha's assurances, saying no system in the world is perfect.

She knows the consequences of an imperfect system. Her husband, Duma, was one of six men sentenced to death for allegedly killing the deputy mayor of Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, following demonstrations sparked by rent increases in the township in 1984.

Duma Kumalo was released following the abolition of the death penalty, but was never given a chance to clear his name. He died in February.

"The problem is (that) innocent people could be arrested and executed for nothing," Betty Kumalo told IPS.

She said the stigma of Duma's death sentence was still being felt by her family.

"His record affects us negatively. It closes all doors for us in everything. When he was alive, whenever he applied for a visa he would be denied," Kumalo said. "He died with a criminal record. I want him cleared. Then I will be free."

Kumalo has joined Dobson to maintain pressure on the government for keeping the death penalty ban in place.

"We have to be vigilant. The abolition of the death penalty can always be overturned," Dobson said.

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