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The death penalty is more anti-black than Malema realises

The recent utterances by EFF leader Julius Malema that should the EFF become the ruling party he will hold a referendum for people to decide whether they want the death penalty reinstated, are reckless. They indicate to me that he has no appreciation for the historical constructs of this country and has not bothered to engage in a thorough study on capital punishment at a global level. The death penalty is outlawed in more than 111 countries, and with good reason.

Last night I raised this issue on my Facebook status update. All the people who agree with Malema’s statements argue that the death penalty is necessary in our country because it would decrease the soaring crime levels. This is in fact a false argument that is not evidenced by reality. The death penalty does not guarantee a decrease in crime. For example, the two states in the US with the most executions in 2003, Texas (24) and Oklahoma (14), saw increases in their murder rates from 2002 to 2003. Both states had murder rates above the national average in 2003: Texas (6.4) and Oklahoma (5.9). The top 13 states in terms of murder rates in the US were all death-penalty states. The murder rate of the death-penalty states increased from 2002, while the rate in non-death penalty states decreased.

Furthermore, racial disparities in capital sentencing are a historical reality. Consider the statistics in the US: between 1930 and 1967 (at which point executions stopped, pending a decade-long Supreme Court overhaul of the death penalty), 54% of the 3 859 people put to death under civilian authority were black. This was not only out of proportion with the black share of the total population but also out of proportion with the percentage of serious crimes committed by blacks. Of the 455 men executed for rape between 1930 and 1967, 90% were black.

In SA, the statistics would not differ fundamentally. A look at the 2007/2008 report conducted by the SA Institute of Race Relations, which studied the demographics of prisoners in SA, contained shocking figures, including that 80% of the prison population is black and only 4% is white. The report indicates that whites have the lowest rate of conviction. Malema must study the relationship between crime, education and employment to understand why his statements are anti-black.

The high level of unemployment and poverty among black people is not an accident of history. It is a product of a system that was designed to keep black people in chains. This was expressed through vehicles such as Bantu education and the creation of Bantustans. Townships and informal settlements are also a creation of the apartheid system. Couple this with the fact that 80% of the economy is in the hands of a white minority and what you have is blacks living in communities where unemployment, poverty, disease, violence, alcohol and drug abuse rates are high.

The product of this reality is a high level of crime in the townships where blacks live and also, in affluent (white-dominated neighbourhoods) where blacks commit criminal activities. Malema is correct when he argues that crimes such as theft are largely born from structural inequalities. Where he is wrong is when he argues that rape is not. Rape is also a product of structural inequalities and statistics corroborate this fact. Some of the highest rape stats include the townships of Nyanga and Khayelitsha, the Cape Flats, Eldorado Park, Diepsloot and KwaMashu. What do all these places have in common? They are almost exclusively black dominated. Drug and alcohol abuse is rife, there are high levels of unemployment and levels of education are very low. It is not unreasonable to argue that people with no education and therefore very little prospect of employment would resort to alcohol and drug abuse, and that in their state of intoxication, they would commit rape.

The reckless statements by Malema also fail to appreciate that the death penalty would in fact tax blacks more than it would the whites, largely due to SA being a tax haven for the rich (who are dominantly white). In the US, it costs the taxpayer $2 million (approximately R20 million) in legal fees to try a death-penalty case, nearly four times higher than comparable murder trials. The automatic appeal process costs up to $700 000 in legal fees and $1.2 million in execution costs. Between 1973 -1998, the state of Florida spent $57 million (approximately R570 million) on 18 executions. Simply put: it costs the taxpayer more to execute a criminal than it does to keep him in jail, even for life without parole. Because the rich are not taxed nearly enough in SA, the burden of the costs would fall on overly-taxed workers.

And lastly, to argue for the reinstatement of the death penalty in a country with a compromised judiciary is dangerous. According to a recent study by John P Galligan, a US attorney, more than 65% of convictions in capital cases are overturned. In more than 20% of these cases, forensic technology has been used to exonerate convicted criminals (most of whom are black). Such cases illustrate the fallibility of the criminal-justice process. The reality is that in our country, the justice system favours the rich and the politically connected, and therefore the opposite of justice is privilege. The privileged are insulated with money, race and class position. The poor are thus exposed to an unjust and erroneous system.

Should the EFF become the governing party, it must focus on fighting for economic freedom and transforming the judiciary, not on holding referendums that are not in the interest of black people. It is economic freedom that will decrease crime levels, not the death penalty. In the quest for providing the media with soundbites, Malema must be careful to not be reckless, counter-revolutionary and downright anti-black.