SO Tony Leon is in favour of the death penalty. His admission may be interpreted in at least two ways. As a citizen he is entitled to his personal view and perhaps he simply wishes to present an honest picture of himself to the electorate. Conversely, his revelation could be a cynical election ploy, playing both ends against the middle: the abolitionist vote is retained in the name of Democratic Alliance (DA) policy, while voters are attracted from parties further to the Right via a nod and a wink from the leader.

The problem for those like Leon who support capital punishment is that their argument rests heavily on emotion. This is understandable and justifiable for the victim of a specific violent crime. A desire for personal vengeance is a predictable human reaction, but societal revenge embedded in the legal system and its sentencing procedures is an entirely different matter. Justice by its very nature requires reason; and there is no rationale in the idea of the state killing people in order to stop people killing people. The state itself becomes a perpetrator of violence and simply escalates an unacceptable culture, depreciating still further the value of life, already enjoying an appallingly low rate of exchange in South Africa.

There is no solid evidence to show that capital punishment in itself reduces the level of violent crime. It is part of the justice system in the United States, which suffers from high levels of criminal violence unimagined in abolitionist Western Europe, largely because of absurd beliefs about rights of gun ownership. And of course once the state has killed someone in the name of supposed justice there is no hope of redemption. In a rational judicial system this would seem to be an obvious and desirable outcome of imprisonment, alongside the need to punish the individual and protect society.

Perhaps the ultimate argument against the death penalty is the fact that no judicial system is without its bias, errors, misjudgements and built-in unfairness. Such imperfect processes should not involve matters of life and death. As we know from our own painful history, such punishment tends to be imposed disproportionately with a strong racial bias and in the United States much depends on the inclinations of individual prosecutors. The number of flawed and unsafe convictions in Britain that resulted from the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign of the 1970s indicates the folly of capital punishment. Life sentences can be overturned if mistakes have been made, but re-opened cases and re-trials have no meaning in the grave. A death sentence is without remedy. For this reason Amnesty International echoes the words of Lafayette in the French parliament of 1830: ‘Human fallibility makes it impossible for the death penalty to be fairly and consistently applied’.

These are some of the reasons why well over one hundred countries have abolished capital punishment either in law or in practice. Worldwide evidence suggests that crime can be reduced by high quality professional policing firmly anchored in local communities. The greatest deterrent is the fear of being caught. As numerous lampposts currently inform us, a much better resourced police force is high on the agenda of the DA’s nineteen-point plan for the future of South Africa. The section on crime and justice correctly pinpoints a national crisis. Developing this theme, the DA calls for a well-trained, well-equipped and community-based police force with better developed investigative capability. It also demands an efficient judicial system. This is a sensible message to send to the electorate but nowhere does it mention capital punishment, which makes its leader’s confession all the more curious.

Whether or not the DA is the current repository of the tradition of South African liberalism is a moot point, although there is no other registered political party able to claim this role. In an age in which the manifestos of political parties, similarly couched in advertising jargon, increasingly look alike it is the intended means by which objectives are to be pursued that become crucial. One of the key concerns of liberals is the manner in which political power is exercised and it is patently obvious that addressing the problem of violent crime by killing yet more people does not tie in with any definition of liberalism.

Leon’s revelation places him squarely on the political right wing and calls into question the future trajectory of his party. But, perhaps most important of all, those like Leon who support capital punishment consistently forget that this is not a matter of introducing a new law to the statute book, but of the interpretation of the Constitution. The abolition of capital punishment accompanied the constitutional extension of basic freedoms to millions of South Africans who had never before been true citizens of their country. Its re-introduction would logically imply new interpretations of the Constitution that could seriously limit hard-won freedoms, a thoroughly illiberal approach to our political future.

It is indeed possible that Leon aims to attract right wing refugees from fringe parties. They might wish to make their ballots talk louder by voting for the biggest opposition party on the grounds that its leader shares one of their cherished principles even though the DA is generally perceived to hold liberal beliefs. But, as the posters persistently tell us, ‘South Africa deserves better’ than this. 

This article was first published in The Witness on 26 March 2004 and entitled ‘Killing criminals does not fix crime’.