South Africans are calling for the death penalty to be reinstated – here’s what government says

Over 300,000 South Africans have signed a petition calling for the death penalty to be reinstated, in the wake of several high profile murders and acts of violence against women in the country.

The petition was established after the public learned that missing UCT student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, was raped and murdered at a Post Office in Claremont, Cape Town.

Citing Mrewtyana’s murder, as well as the murders of Aneen Booysen, Karabo Mokoena, Reeva Steenkamp and “many, many more”, the petitioner said that “we as a movement must find our voice to bring back the death sentence for crimes against women and children in the hope of saving this great country”.

Despite evidence that capital punishment does not deter crime, calls for the death penalty are regularly revived, particularly following a spike in violent crimes.

Crime statistics showed that there were 20,336 murders in South Africa between April 2017 and March 2018, a 7% increase from the previous year. This puts the country’s murder rate at close to 36 people murdered per 100,000 population – and 57 murders each day.

What government says

Earlier in 2019, president Cyril Ramaphosa answered voters’ questions ahead of the National Elections, one of which questioned the plausibility of the death penalty being reinstated to combat high levels of crime in South Africa.

The president said quite plainly that it is not the state’s place to take life.

“Our constitution has enshrined the right to life. This means that the state should not be the one to terminate a life. The surge in criminality should be addressed in other ways rather than ending people’s lives,” Ramaphosa said.

This sentiment has been expressed by many Constitutional law experts, who say that the state acts on behalf of the people, and by perpetrating brutal acts such as capital punishment, the entire country is implicated in that.

“To endorse the death penalty is to endorse state violence and the brutality that necessarily forms part of premeditating killing,” said Constitutional law expert, Pierre De Vos. “The death penalty thus brutalises the whole of society and implicates us all in the kind of violence that we wish perpetrators to be punished for.”

However, not all political leaders are opposed to the death penalty.

In its 2019 election manifesto, the IFP said that it wants harsher punishment for criminals, which includes prison terms with hard labour, as well as re-opening the debate on bringing back the death penalty in South Africa.

History of the death penalty in South Africa

The abolishment of the death penalty in South Africa is not simply a government decision – it is rooted in law, and follows a dark past of using the punishment in the country.

At one stage, South Africa had one of the highest execution rates globally. Between 1959 and 1989, South Africa executed almost 3,000 people by hanging, with over 1,200 in the 1980s alone. Solomon Ngobeni was the last person to be officially executed in South Africa in November 1989.

Following a five year moratorium on the death penalty between 1990 – 1995, the issue was finally dealt with in the constitutional case of S vs Makwanyane.

The judgement was unanimous with all 10 judges giving different reasons as to why the death penalty should be abolished. These included issues such as possible mistakes made during the investigation process, as well as the right to life under the Constitution.

Notably, the judgement also recognised that while the death penalty may be popular among members of the public, it was counter to the country’s Constitution.

The president of the Constitutional Court at the time, Arthur Chaskalson, said that it was disputed whether public opinion, properly informed of the different considerations, would in fact favour the death penalty.

He said that, even though the majority of South Africans might believe that the proper sentence for murder should be death, it is not a question of public will, but whether the Constitution allows such a sentence. And it does not.

Death penalty around the world

According to Amnesty International, to reinstate the death penalty would be going against the global trends, where cases of the death penalty being used as punishment for crimes are decreasing.

In its latest report on the death penalty, looking at available data for 2018, the group said that figures show that the death penalty is firmly in decline, and that effective steps are being taken across the world to end the use of this cruel and inhuman punishment.

It recorded at least 690 executions in 20 countries in 2018, a decrease of 31% compared to 2017 (at least 993). This figure excludes executions in China, which are believed to number in the thousands.

During the United Nations General Assembly in December, 121 countries – an unprecedented number – voted to support a global moratorium on the death penalty. Only 35 states voted against it.

“Slowly but steadily, global consensus is building towards ending the use of the death penalty. Amnesty has been campaigning to stop executions around the world for more than 40 years – but with more than 19,000 people still languishing on death row worldwide, the struggle is far from over,” the group said.

At the end of 2018, 106 countries had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes and 142 countries had abolished the death penalty in law or practice.


Read: Ramaphosa on the death penalty, cutting ministries, and programming in schools

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South Africans are calling for the death penalty to be reinstated – here’s what government says