Department of Justice responds to calls for the death penalty in South Africa

The Department of Justice and Correctional Services has issued a lengthy statement shooting down calls for a referendum on bringing back the death penalty in South Africa.

South African citizens, civil rights groups and political representatives have called on government to take action, following a string of reports detailing brutal and violent crimes against women in the country.

The latest report, of the rape and murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana at the hands of a South African Post Office worker, spurred public outrage, underpinning police statistics such as the 3,000 women who are murdered each year, and 50,000 more who are victims of sexual offences.

Talk of the death penalty entered the fray through a petition, which drew over 500,000 responses, calling for a referendum on the capital punishment to be reinstated for those convicted of violent crimes, including crimes against women and children.

At a press conference on the murders and public response, justice minister Ronald Lamola said that the question of bringing back the death penalty would have to be taken to cabinet to discuss.

While many took this as the reinstatement of the death penalty being up for consideration, the department says this is not the case at all.

“Cabinet does discuss current affairs confronting the country – and therefore if this (death penalty) is one of them, it is conceivable that the cabinet would discuss these sentiments,” the department said.

However, it pointed out that the Bill of Rights, which provides the tapestry of human rights for all South Africans, protected under law, enshrines the right to life for all – and it is not something that can simply be removed through a referendum.

Specifically, the constitution is structured so as “to protect us from our own whims”; and to ensure that all are equal before the law.

“We cannot subject our Bill of Rights to a referendum. The basis of the constitutional order we are building is premised on the need to protect all those who may not necessarily be protected adequately through a democratic process – where sheer numbers will determine the extent of that protection.

“Today we will subject the prohibition of the death penalty to a referendum. Tomorrow, it will be to re-criminalise abortion. Later it will be to take away the protection accorded to the LGBTIQ community,” the department said.

“This is the effective dismantling of the constitutional supremacy and the vision of building a new society.”

The death penalty is a bad idea

The department said that the call to reinstate the death penalty in South Africa is flawed “in many ways”.

On top of the wider constitutional ramifications outlined above, there is enough evidence available to show that it simply does not work to deter or reduce violent crimes.

In South Africa, while violent crime is still too high, over the past two decades, the incidence of violent crime has halved – from a murder rate of 67 per 100,000 people in 1994 to 33 per 100,000 in 2015.

“Clearly the evidence shows that the death penalty was not a determining factor in reducing murder rates. In fact, the murder rate declined significantly after the death penalty was abolished,” the department said.

The department said that the death penalty also would not deal with femicide or other forms of violence against women, as there is a prevailing set of ideologies – that of male supremacy and entitlement – which drives these crimes.

This needs to be tackled in all spheres of society and government – from personal relationships to policing and policy.

The department said that South Africa needs to improve the entire value chain of criminal justice to combat violent crime – from investigation, arrest, prosecution, incarceration and rehabilitation and reintegration.

“As things stand, only 10% of those who commit murder are caught and convicted. This needs to change. A quick-fix populist approach is likely to make the situation worse over the long term,” the department said.

“There is therefore no easy fix. The ministry will not be tempted by rather populist calls for the return of the death penalty,” it said.

Read: This is what it would take to get the death penalty reinstated in South Africa

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Department of Justice responds to calls for the death penalty in South Africa