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Here is why I support the reinstatement of the death penalty


Herman Mashaba is the former executive mayor of Johannesburg and founder of the People’s Dialogue.

I support the death penalty because those who rape and murder would not be able to do it twice. There is a shocking rate of recidivism by rapists and murderers in South Africa. Studies I have read place this rate at 55% on the lower end of calculations for repeat offences.

In reading Pierre de Vos’s Opinionista in Daily Maverick, “Herman Mashaba, the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime, I must confess to being a bit surprised.  

Despite delving into the recesses of my communications, De Vos bases his article on a series of false premises.

Now let me pause here to say Pierre de Vos is a great mind in our country, and I write this with no acrimony. Our country would be well served with more voices speaking law to politics.

Despite his assertions, I am not Afrophobic or anti-immigration. I assume the intent is to characterise my views as extreme before he begins tackling my views on the death penalty.

As I have said on many occasions, my position is that people who enter our country should do so legally and, once here, they should respect our laws. When a South African is seeking to cross international borders, they are expected to have the correct documentation. I do not believe it is too much to expect the same in South Africa.

Having said this, I feel the need to right a few wrongs here because the death penalty is a complex and deeply emotional issue, about which my position must not be misunderstood.

I personally support the death penalty. However, the political party I am launching this Saturday is not a party for Herman Mashaba, but is a party for all South Africans. 

Our position on the death penalty, and other matters, will not be forged by my views, but those of many South Africans, including experts. I am fully apprised of the legal considerations associated with the issue, including our Constitution as well as our commitments in terms of international law.

With this in mind, allow me to explain why I hold this personal belief in the death penalty.

It is not, as De Vos incorrectly states, that I believe it is a deterrent to violent crime. I agree there are enough studies that have proven that most violent crimes are crimes of passion that do not involve a rational decision-making process weighing the consequences, and that in most cases the death penalty is not an effective deterrent.

Having said this, I support the death penalty because those who rape and murder would not be able to do it twice. There is a shocking rate of recidivism by rapists and murderers in South Africa. Studies I have read place this rate at 55% on the lower end of calculations for repeat offences.

There will be 21,000 murders in South Africa this year, and 42,000 rapes, based on current statistics. 

According to a study published by a forensic psychiatric hospital in South Africa, 14% of murderers and 34% of rapists will repeat their offences in the future. Assuming these rapists only repeat these offences once, and this is a generous assumption, this means that these criminals, when released, will murder 2,940 more South Africans and rape 14,280 more women in our country.

The problem with these numbers is that they dehumanise the victims of repeat rapists and murderers. So, let us focus on recent events. How many of the recently reported rapes and murders were perpetrated by criminals who had previously raped and murdered and were released early from prison? Too many.

Even if you regard the logic behind my personal support for the death penalty as being too simplistic, you cannot deny that it would prevent the unnecessary murders and rapes of a large number of our citizens.

Many who have debated this issue with me have referred to the possibility of wrongful execution as the reason for not reintroducing the death penalty. I acknowledge this concern, especially in the context of our dysfunctional criminal justice system, but would point these detractors to the numerous cases in South Africa where guilt is not in dispute. 

The Dros rapist ruined the life of a seven-year-old girl, went on to plead guilty, and is now appealing his sentence of life imprisonment. The facts of the case are not in dispute, and yet the perpetrator is seeking our sympathy and a lesser sentence. These are the types of cases where I believe the death penalty is warranted.

De Vos, in response to this argument, suggests that incarcerating violent offenders for life without the possibility of parole would be a better option. I think it certainly is a viable option, and one which the new party I am launching will discuss. Either way, the priority has to be the protection of our law-abiding men and women in South Africa.

I think we can all agree that the death penalty, or the “lock them up and throw away the key” approach, could not be instituted when our criminal justice system is as compromised as it is today. I would venture that any consideration of either proposal would involve the very necessary improvement of our criminal justice system. 

Does this make it foolish to consider a future where our criminal justice system is working, and that such considerations could be made? I don’t think so, and nor should it be a barrier to having the debate.  

The point of my raising the issue is that there is a need for a victim-oriented national debate in our country on these and other matters relating to our criminal justice system. The outcome of this debate must be the creation of a criminal justice system that can effectively deal with the high rate of violent crime in South Africa, and ensure that there are effective punishments for the most heinous crimes.

I do not profess to have all the answers, and I make space for the views of many other people, but I think we do have to agree that there is a need for a national debate – and an urgent one – given how the lives of law-abiding men and women in our country are being destroyed. DM