Defend Truth


The right to a dignified death — 300 years later we are still waiting


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

Helping suffering people to end their lives remains a crime in South Africa. Now, backed by eight influential doctors, an ethicist goes to the high court with the aim of decriminalising euthanasia.

Self deliverance, self death, suicide, call it what you will, does the state have a right over individual life?

We will soon find out in South Africa as Professor Willem Landman, of the Ethics Institute of SA and who sits on the executive committee of Dignity SA, approach the Pretoria High Court in June to seek clarity around current legislation.

The application hopes to have any form of euthanasia – including assisted suicide – decriminalised and that the court instructs Parliament to draft legislation which covers this.

Landman says that Dignity SA will ask the court to halt criminal prosecutions for euthanasia and assisted suicide until such time as there is legal clarity on the matter

Strengthening the case is the support of eight influential doctors who published their professional opinion in the SA Medical Journal in February.

There, Professor JP van Niekerk, Dr Paul Cluver, Dr Edwin Hertzog, Professor Mariana Kruger, Professor Keymanthri Moodley, Professor Jonny Myers, Professor Dan Ncayiyana and Dr Johan Snyman, all offered full support for DignitySA’s planned court action.

“People will always differ on whether euthanasia is ethically justifiable, especially on a religious level. The fact is, that is not the debate we are currently engaged in. We say that the existing Constitution of our country must be correctly interpreted on this matter,” they wrote.

“The Constitution is in place, even though people have ethical differences about it,” they wrote.

Whose life is it anyway?

One of the first recorded deaths by suicide in South Africa was of a 24-year-old woman, known only as Zara, a servant who took her own life in Cape Town in December 1671. 

She was found hanged in the sheep house of “free men” by Francois Champelaar (servant of Joris Jans) and Angela of Bengal (wife of Arnoldus Willems) who cut her down.

The VOC colonial administrators at the Cape at the time ordered that Zara be punished post mortem. 

Her body was dragged by a donkey along the streets towards Green Point and Gallows Hill, named after the original gallows which were erected there. All her belongings and property were confiscated by the state.

Her corpse was strung up and hanged from a gibbet, a pole used to hang the already dead. This was a punishment for all to see that Zara’s life was not hers to take.

Because she could speak at least three languages including Dutch and Portuguese and had attended church, she was, according to records, considered “civilised”. As such she owed her existence to the colonial government.

And it was those who considered themselves civilised who left Zara’s body out to hang for the predators to rip and peck at and for all to see, to serve as a warning to others.

Suicide was considered a “sin” by the Dutch occupiers. 

The irony is that South Africa practises passive euthanasia every day as people who do not have the money for expensive treatments are left to die.

Professor Premesh Lalu, founding director of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, has warned about speculating about the motive for Zara’s decision to take her own life.

We should beware of creating a martyr, he said, or to view Zara as a symbol of a woman who would rather end her life than live under colonial rule. Too many secrets surround Zara’s decision, he reminds us.

Fair en0ugh, but it remains tempting to view her actions as an act of resistance and self-ownership.

The long road to dignity 

Zara’s taking of her life and subsequent punishment happened more than 350 years ago and here we are in 2024 still persecuting those who seek to end their lives.

In March, Carol de Swart, a 63-year-old Ge0rge mother of two who lost a leg after botched treatment for skin cancer at Grey’s Hospital in Durban and whose body was being consumed by her illness, ended her life in Switzerland.

Her children could not accompany her to the Pegasos Clinic for fear that they could be criminally charged in South Africa for assisting their mother to die. 

That it was her wish, that she was sound of mind, that she had prepared herself spiritually was of no consequence to the law as it stands.

Netwerk24 filmed a short documentary as Carol flew out of South Africa to Switzerland where Professor Sean Davison, of DignitySA and who oversees the Exit Swiss Assistance Programme, accompanied her on her last journey.

Titled “Ek Wil Myself Nie Verloor Nie” (I don’t want to lose myself”), the 24-minute documentary is a hard but searing watch. Carol’s courage is remarkable.

The irony of contemporary opposition to self-delivery in South Africa, mostly on religious grounds, is that the country practises passive euthanasia every day as people who do not have the money for expensive treatments are left to die.

A depleted medical aid and the inability to access the most basic of health services is a long-term death sentence and sometimes a slow one for many citizens. 

While their focus has been on those who choose to end their lives, they seem less interested in those who seek to live through medical assistance but are denied this.

It is time for Parliament to listen to the doctors and the lawyers who seek to change laws in line with the Constitution. May it be sooner than later. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jeff Robinson says:

    It is only because I happened to be reading a print version of the DM that I came across this excellent article. I fail to understand why it has not been given prominence in the online version. Marianne draws to attention the incongruity between being against the legalization of assisted suicide while largely oblivious to the early death of countless thousands who cannot access existing medical interventions. I think that more blame needs to be placed at the door of religion. It is a no-brainer that if you are going to promise eternal paradise, there must be a proscription against suicide. Othewise all your devotees will be topping themselves.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted