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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.


  • Malaika Wa Azania, an AU African Youth Charter Ambassador for the SADC Region, is a pan Afrikanist Socialist, a feminist and the founder of Afrikan Voices of the Left journal, a publication of Pen and Azanian Revolution (Pty) Ltd, of which she's the Director. She is the former Secretary General of the African Youth Coalition, a pan-Africanist federation of civil society youth organisations in Africa, a free-lance writer, social commentator, activist and essayist. Above all, she's a daughter of the soil!


  1. Guerra Guerra 16 October 2013

    I would take a slightly different view, and not necessarily a racial view. I agree that Malema is totally wrong – not because of the racial angle of the death penalty – but because it is an aggressively right-wing conservative view which is out of place in a progressive democracy. In fact, Malema’s views are completely back to front. Like the ANC, he is aggressively right wing and conservative in social values – patriarchal, sexist, tribalist, anti-intellectual and chauvinistic. And like the ANC, he is aggresively left-wing on economic issues – favouring a bloated, parastic, socialist or communist state. These values are EXACTLY the opposite of what SA needs. SA needs a free economy based on free enterprise (right wing if you will have it) and tolerant, liberal social policies favouring the freedom of the individual (left wing). Our leaders ideas are completely back to front. There is a dearth of real leadership in SA. The result is a crumbling economy, and an authoritarian, bullying state.

  2. Comrade Koos Comrade Koos 17 October 2013

    Good article MALAIKA WA AZANIA. Thank you.

  3. justmythough justmythough 17 October 2013

    Race should not be a factor when deciding corporal punishment. our constitution is built on the fact that all are equal before the law. then corporal punishment should also be applied equally, if you rape, then face the consequences. being a “black” rapist should hold you no favors.
    being unemployed, and un-educated should not be used an excuse to justify, those who commit crime. there are a large majority of south africans out there who fight a daily battle against poverty, yet dont resort to crime, or rape.
    what is their protection against these criminal elements, who occupy the same financial situation, but merely choose a different path.
    i firmly believe, you live by the sword, you die by the sword, black, white, brown blue or whatever, color is immaterial, its the animal within that must be recognized.

  4. Gillian Schutte Gillian Schutte 17 October 2013

    Excellent article as usual Malaika!

  5. nkuba adam nkuba adam 17 October 2013

    Ask the relatives of those kids ,killed in diepsloot about Death penalty and stop intellectualising realities ,you never experienced .

  6. nkuba adam nkuba adam 17 October 2013

    i really respect some of your views ,Malaika but at times you strech the race issue to a bursting point…death penalty is about retribution not deterence ,hence vigilantism and revenge attacks in the society .
    if i sum up your argument .black people may kill ,rape and abuse each other ,as long as death of a black person is not sanctioned by the state is fair,using american statistics to speak to a south african situation ,i find a bit out of touch.

    we are living in world of political assasinations, genocide and terrorist attacks on innocent people but our inttellectuals are not ashamed of speaking in defence of warlords trying to avoid ICC indictments , paedophiles and serial killers, if anyone does any of this to my kids ..i ill adminster my own death penalty (by muti or otherwise)

    for crime is crime ..i care less about the perpetratoir ‘s race. no offence intended.

  7. Nguni Nguni 17 October 2013

    Bringing back the death-penalty is one way to get the white vote. Azania’s fretting over costs are misplaced as the USA’s fat-cat lawyer system is not directly comparable to SA. With Malema running the country, within a few years we will have ultra-cheap kangaroo court scenarios like in Nigeria, with public executions on the beach on in stadia.

  8. Concerned Concerned 17 October 2013

    Malaika, you make me laugh! You say “They indicate to me that he … and has not bothered to engage in a thorough study”. As if this was a rare and careless oversight on Malema’s part.

    No, Malema does not do thorough studies. Or thoughtful studies. He does study catalogues of trinkets and bling… He does study adverts on mansions and cars, but he does not study anything of concern to our country or its people.

    Malema shows hatred and jealousy, he shows ignorance and arrogance, he shows ruthlessness and unconcern about sowing death, injury and destruction, and he shows all he is interested in is power, unearned money and the trappings of enrichment. He is the embodiment of all that is wrong in the entitled young – unable and unwilling to work and earn an honest living, lying with abandon to further his personal advancement, and exploiting who and what he can along the way. His escapades show that he lacks any morality, any interest in what is right and just.

    He is plain shameful!

  9. Mr. Direct Mr. Direct 17 October 2013

    Holding a referendum allows citizens to decide, welcome to democracy. I do not believe this is a race topic at all….

    You can set your arguments down as above, but at the end of the day, the most compelling argument will win. Most likely this will become and emotional decision rather than a rational or financial one.

    I personally believe the legal system is too flawed, and the policing too poor to be able to produce significant evidence to be sure of conviction, therefore the death penalty only be true justice in a small number of cases.

    I would not like to be the judge that has the responsibility to decide, either way.

  10. john b patson john b patson 17 October 2013

    A more fundamental point is that the death penalty is wrong because, no matter how the judicial system is run, mistakes are made and some innocent people are executed and some murderers go free.

  11. PrettyBelinda PrettyBelinda 17 October 2013

    billie holiday engraved it in our memories, black, native american, whites and hispanics, the world shall listen to her gospel

    Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
    Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
    Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
    Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees


  12. Uhuru Tiko Uhuru Tiko 17 October 2013

    i understand the strong feeling you have for our black people however, not everything is black and white. otherwise i agree with your point of view in terms of what the leader of EFF said.

    Good article Malaika

  13. Thobani Mtolo Thobani Mtolo 17 October 2013

    Great analysis on prospect repercussions on “black” people. However, I feel at the moment what should concern us most as Africans is bumping life into the national economic liberation struggle, in which the EFF’s claim to lead does not look promising. The most common thing we hear being argued by them in the name of economic freedom is “land redistribution”, which is all well and good but sounds like a redundant outcry of the Malema led ANCYL. Perhaps we need to first define what economic freedom means but I guess liberation movements learn as they go.

  14. bernpm bernpm 18 October 2013

    Can we somehow stop seeing everything in a black/white context??

    Your quoted US statistics seem to imply that black Americans are more criminal than white Americans. An unintended by product??

    One can be pro or anti death penalty without referring to race.

  15. Joseph Coates Joseph Coates 23 November 2013

    The death penalty is for hardened criminals regards of their cultural background.
    These criminals were beyond rehab status , when they committed their heinous crimes.
    Death penalty by hanging or with lethal injection has nothing to do with the previous
    government ” apartheid policies”. Stop making every issue a black-white paradoxy.
    Otherwise we will never move forward in making this country to where it should be.
    If the death penalty was reintroduced, those committing heinous crimes would think twice before actually doing it. Also our jails would have less prisoners and crime statistics would be done than the current rate.

  16. Jaco Jaco 20 December 2013

    Whilst I do not agree with the death penalty on moral grounds, I would like to offer a point in its defence.

    You mention that those states in the US where the death penalty is allowed are also those where the most crimes are committed. This supposedly illustrates that the death penalty does not reign in crime rates.

    Allow me to offer a counter-argument — what would be the case in these states had the death penalty not been introduced? The answer might well be a place like South Africa. Then the point made becomes “Oh, look at how low the crime are in these violent states! It could be so much worse!”

    Looking at murder in South Africa, it becomes apparent that a lot of it is down to a simple disregard for human life. Stealing a cellphone in a mugging I can understand, but to murder someone for the same thing is more difficult to comprehend.

    In many cases it is simply ‘easier’ to kill the victim, knowing full well that the law is not all that harsh, but what if this were not the case? Would criminals not have a strong disincentive to kill in such marginal cases?

    In conclusion thus, simply citing a statistic of “this is how it is” does not really tell a complete story — it allows for open ended speculation as to why it is so. Perhaps spend a little more time justifying how the death penalty doesn’t help.

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