Opinion - The community was understandably angry when the life of 9-year-old Sadia Sukhraj from Shallcross, west of Durban, was snuffed out by a bullet during a hijacking just over a week ago.

When a wife dies, the husband is referred to as a widower. 

When a husband dies, the wife becomes a widow. When parents die, their children are called orphans.

There is no word for the parent whose child dies.

It is not natural for parents to bid a final farewell to an offspring. No parent should have to bury a child. 

This is contrary to the circle of life. Children should bury their parents - not the other way around.

Compassionate, caring, concerned men and women were plunged into the abyss of grief as news quickly spread of angelic Sadia’s death on her way to school that morning.

That evening, hundreds of furious residents protested outside the Chatsworth Police Station to demand justice for Sadia.

It is tolerable that they barricaded roads with burning tyres. It is allowable that they threw stones at policemen. 

It is also bearable that they hurled profanities - even women spewed out the bad word that rhymes with “duck”. 

The community members were, after all, quite incensed that the police was not doing enough to combat crime.

However, what I found totally unacceptable and deplorable was that among the protesters were those who were calling for the reinstatement of the death sentence.

No amount of anger and frustration should ever be used to justify the return of capital punishment.

For a moment, ponder the following. In 1963, Nelson Mandela - we regard him as the Father of the Nation - and several other ANC leaders were charged with planning to commit sabotage and overthrow the racist government.

During the trial in 1963-64, Mandela and his comrades had been found guilty. 

The convictions carried the death penalty.

But Judge Quartus de Wet stopped short of ordering their executions and instead sentenced them to life in prison.

When Mandela was spared the noose, the oppressed majority celebrated the sparing of the life of their hero, and they were joined by millions in the international community.

Can you imagine where South Africa would have been had Madiba been hanged?

Following his release after 27 years of incarceration under torturous conditions, Mandela inspired South Africa’s political and racial rivals to work together to build a democracy.

He showed his fellow countrymen it was possible to forgive one’s enemies.

Majority rule was ushered in without bloodletting. 

The relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy would not have been possible without Mandela’s leadership, vision and personality. Reconciliation and forgiveness became the Mandela Mantra.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that South Africa would have become a basket case overnight had Mandela been sent to the gallows.

The death penalty has been a mode of punishment since time immemorial. Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross by Jews for what was believed to be a crime of blasphemy.

Capital punishment is mentioned in the Holy Bible many times, and the “eye for an eye” principle is advocated.

South Africa executed approximately 4000 people since the introduction of the sentence in 1910 until 1995 when the Constitutional Court abolished capital punishment.

The Constitutional Court’s 1995 ruling forbade the government from carrying out the death sentence.

The court ruled that death is the most extreme form to which a convicted criminal can be subjected. Its execution is final and irrevocable. 

It puts an end not only to the right to life itself, but to all other personal rights which had vested in the deceased under the constitution.

The Constitutional Court under Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson said death was a cruel penalty and the legal processes which involve waiting in uncertainty for the sentence to be set aside or carried out, added to the cruelty.

It is also an inhuman punishment for it involves, by its very nature, a denial of the executed person’s humanity, and it is degrading because it strips the convicted person of all dignity and treats him or her as an object to be eliminated by the state.

In short, the Constitutional Court declared that the carrying out of the death sentence destroys life, which is protected without reservation under our constitution.

With crime spiralling out of control in South Africa, the voices calling for capital punishment to be re-established have been getting louder.

However, there is no concrete evidence showing that the death penalty actually deters crime. 

Various studies around the world comparing crime and murder rates in countries that have the death penalty versus those that don’t found very little difference between the two.

Capital punishment is often defended on the grounds that society has a moral obligation to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens.

Criminals put the safety and welfare of the public at risk. In order to ensure that killers do not kill again, murderers should be put to death.

However, custodians of ethics argue that capital punishment is immoral in principle, and unfair and discriminatory in practice. The death penalty sometimes destroys an innocent life.

They say that when the government metes out vengeance disguised as justice, it becomes complicit with killers in devaluing human life and human dignity.

They reject the principle of literally doing to criminals what they do to their victims.

Nobody advocates punishing rapists with rape or molesting molesters. Why then should the death penalty be deemed an appropriate response to violent crime?

No one deserves to die.

In a just society, the greatest penalty should be incarceration for life, with the possibility of regaining some liberties. 

This penalty, when executed properly, would protect society from criminals as effectively as the death penalty. 

Violent prisoners must be kept in maximum-security prisons in secluded locations.

Many who call for capital punishment say that fear of death should serve as a deterrent to those who commit murder.

But we are dealing here with human nature, not logic. In the case of what are called “crimes of passion”, the perpetrator is too possessed by rage or despair to care about consequences.

In the case of gang murders, the young men involved are clearly persons who place little value on life, including their own. When they are hungry, there can be no consideration for right or wrong.

They have no fear of being caught - and with an abysmall low conviction rate, they reckon that committing crime is worth the chance.

Those who carry placards calling for the death penalty believe retribution is sufficient reason to execute murderers.

It is perfectly natural to want to see callous individuals meet the same fate as their victims. But this is an emotional argument.

Law-abiding citizens must strive for a higher moral standard. Their demands for retribution is similar to the motives of gang members who are driven by a cycle of revenge killings.

What we need is a police service that does what it is meant to do: policing. Presently, police protection has become a myth.

Communities believe they have been failed by the police - the very people they are supposed to look up to for safety and security.

Law enforcement officials have an inherent obligation by law to protect people against illegal acts that threaten their human rights and dignity.

The police service must promote a culture of human rights in South Africa.

The police service must be beefed up forthwith so that it will help safeguard our hard-won democracy. 

The police must again “protect and serve”.

Criminals get deterred when they think there is a high probability that they will be caught and when they know that, once apprehended, the wheels of justice turn swiftly.

Thus, the detection and surveillance capabilities of police officers must be jacked up. Such measures can only lead to more convictions.

Meanwhile, calling for the death penalty should be made a punishable offence. It is an affront to human rights and dignity.

An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind, said Mahatma Gandhi.

* Yogin Devan is a media consultant and social commentator. Share your thoughts with him on: [email protected]

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