The death penalty is no solution to SA’s crime crisis

There have been calls for the return of the death penalty because of the high crime rate. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/Independent Newspapers

There have been calls for the return of the death penalty because of the high crime rate. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 7, 2024


Dr Ela Gandhi

Recent calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty in South Africa are worrying. It is understandable that the increasing incidence of very gruesome crimes against women and children in particular and other crimes in general, have left the community totally devastated, angry and shocked. In this circumstance the reinstatement of the death penalty seems to be the only recourse.

In his book, Hind Swaraj, Gandhiji wrote about his views on the need for societal change as a way to rise above criminal activities. Behind the simple statement “an eye for an eye will end up making the whole world blind” is this understanding that revenge and retribution do not solve societal problems. A concerted effort to change people’s thinking and bring back the humanity, compassion, and love in the lives of people will result in a society where such gruesome crimes will not take place.

I refer to the book “When the State Kills”, which provides clearly all the reasons why the death penalty should be abolished.  Systematically the book outlines research which shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime; that over the centuries the world has seen many cases where courts have made mistakes in their findings and if the accused is alive one can release him, but if the death penalty is imposed there is nothing that can be done to correct the injustice; that it is important to think of the mental trauma that this act of killing has on the ones who are entrusted to carry out the punishment; that a society where life becomes of little consequence, whether from the side of the state or the public, gruesome crimes will proliferate; that research reveals that often the poor are the victims of the death sentence while the wealthy are able to evade it through various means not least by engaging the most articulate lawyers; and that many countries abolished the death penalty with very little consequence of increasing crime rates.

Spiritually, every act of cruelty, every evil thought has the effect of reducing our humanity even when the thought is directed towards one who has wronged us. The wrong-doer suffers from his/her own conscience and consequences of the act of evil but the victim or the sufferer and his/her family suffer not only the loss of a loved one, but also anger and desire for revenge. Our scriptures teach us that these negative emotions of anger only have an adverse affect on us.We suffer the physical and mental effects of anger and desire for revenge on our bodies.

There are many examples of people who have risen above such anger and done extraordinary things. A father whose son was killed by a pizza delivery man, reached out to the father of the man who killed his son and together they set up an organisation to deal with trauma and racism, and help the man in prison realise the seriousness of his crime and rehabilitate him. These stories are replicated all over the world where reconciliation and rehabilitation has successfully happened. Is this not a better way to deal with criminal conduct than the death penalty?

It is a matter of what comes first, the egg or the hen, that one has to look at whether one should look at the proliferation of gruesome crimes or at the gruesomeness of the state taking on the authority to kill. At the end it is our own thoughts that determine who we are and what matters to us. Let us consider the statement made by Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die” and Mahatma Gandhi’s statement, “I am prepared to die but there is no cause on earth for which I am prepared to kill.”

Both these leaders talk about self-sacrifice and not about taking life.

The more important issue facing humanity as a whole is how has modernisation changed us from a community in which we were able to live and extend hospitality to strangers passing by, to the present day situation where we are estranged from each other to the extent that we have gates, fences, security and weapons to safeguard us. We do not readily open our doors to strangers. We live in fear of being mugged. This is dehumanising us. We are unable to accept human beings as fellow travellers on this earth and instead we label people as thieves and murderers. People are not born with these attributes, modern living and inequalities drives people to behave in an anti-social manner.

The death penalty is final, once killed you cannot bring them back. So when we call for implementation of such an extreme act does it not dehumanise us? Yet there are many people who believe that revenge, punishment befitting an act against another is normal and it is justice.

Anger drives them to call for the death penalty. But given a chance to think, people will realise that their suffering will not go away through an act of revenge. So what is real justice? As Gandhiji said, real justice is in helping to transform people to become humane again and desist from acts that hurt others. Let us help to transform our society and move away from violence.

*Dr Gandhi is a peace activist

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL