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We’d love to hang ’em high…but we can’t

There’s one very good reason why we could never reinstate the death penalty in South Africa, and it has little to do with the Constitution as far as I’m concerned. It’s simply that we couldn’t properly trust or control a state killing machine capable of churning its way through the tens of thousands of brutal, mindless killers that would have to be strung up every year if justice was really to be done.

Most South Africans would have the death penalty back tomorrow, given half a chance. They’re tired of that endlessly bleated “fact” that the death penalty has never been proven to be a deterrent. Of course it has. Show me one single executed person who has ever come back to kill again and I’ll concede the point. The argument that “you get crime everywhere in the world” will also get you nowhere with me. The United Kingdom’s murder rate hovers around 600 — 800 every year, while ours, from a reasonably similar population size, is at the very least 30 times that. I know the government claims our murder rate has dropped to under 20 000 a year in recent years, but that’s only because half of the police force would be incapable of recognising a murder if it bit them in the bum, and the other half is busy colluding with the ANC to gyp the murder stats and make things look rosy.

Another problem in our country is that we have a hugely disproportionate percentage of mindless, savage killings carried out by multiple assailants who, having wrenched the cellular phone and wedding ring from the bleeding 85-year-old widow, have a wicked statement to make to society, and it ain’t got nuttin’ to do with compassion, Ubuntu or the clichéd “Rainbow Nation”. Face it, in Europe, North America and the rest of the developed world, half of all killings involve gangsters whittling their own numbers down in turf wars, and another quarter results from domestic disputes that get out of hand when somebody ducks too slowly to dodge the flying beer bottle. Here, it’s largely about sheer mindless savagery carried out by scum who hunt in packs and kill for fun.

Take our 30 000 or so murders, and even if you rather generously concede that perhaps 22 000 of them resulted from gang wars, fights and arguments with wives and lovers that went wrong, you’re still left with 8 000 very dead South Africans who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If every one of the three or four thugs who sliced, diced and shot each of them to death had to mount the scaffold, we’d hang perhaps 27 000 people a year, every year, with 120 or so villains queuing to have their necks stretched every single working day. That’s about eight times as many as are executed in China, that has 1.3 billion citizens compared to our 48 million and tops the world tables by executing about 3 700 of them every year.

This takes me to my next point. Our courts are already creaking under the strain of coping with the day-to-day prosecutions of the fast-growing number of our countrymen who’ve been caught with their fingers in the till. Increase the judiciary’s annual workload by 27 000 appeals against the death penalty and you’d soon find our already decrepit justice system imploding. Then those naughty Travelgate thieves in Parliament would NEVER have their day in court!

So, what’s the answer? I’m blowed if I know, but we can’t carry on like this. Those heroes of The Struggle, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Josef Stalin were quite good at organising mass executions, but we’ve painted ourselves into a bit of a corner with that pesky Constitution, haven’t we? You can bet your bottom dollar that a fair number of mistakes would be made, and they couldn’t all be covered up. Perhaps that’s why our leaders prefer to sit back, fudge the figures, and let the slaughter carry on.


  • Gavin Foster

    Durban photojournalist Gavin Foster writes mainly for magazines. His articles and photographs have appeared in hundreds of South African, American and British publications, and he's also instigated and researched stories for Carte Blanche. Winner of the Magazine Publishers Association of South Africa PICA Profile Writer of the Year Award in 2008. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorcycle Journalist of the Year (Magazines) 2015/16/17. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorcycle Journalist of the Year (Overall) 2015/16. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorsport Journalist of the Year (Magazines) 2017 - Runner-Up 2015/16.