|Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)|
In its 1st major decision, South Africa's recently created supreme court abolished the death penalty today, ending a decades-old practice of executing criminals convicted of serious crimes that had once given the country one of the world's highest rates of capital punishment.
Announcing the unanimous decision, Arthur Chaskalson, president of the Constitutional Court, said, "Everyone, including the most abominable of human beings, has a right to life, and capital punishment is therefore unconstitutional."
That the Constitutional Court chose the death penalty issue for its first major ruling underscored the importance of the issue in a country where for decades execution was used not just as a weapon against common crime, but as a means of terror in enforcing the system of racial separation known as apartheid.
"Retribution cannot be accorded the same weight under our Constitution as the right to life and dignity," Mr. Chaskalson said. "It has not been shown that the death sentence would be materially more effective to deter or prevent murder than the alternative sentence of life imprisonment would be."
In a strong show of support for the ruling, each of the court's 11 judges issued a written opinion backing the decision. The Constitutional Court was created earlier this year as an equal to the executive and legislative branches.
South Africa stopped executing prisoners in 1992 on the orders of the former National Party Government. With violent crime rampant, the number of prisoners awaiting execution on death rows has since swollen to 443. Over 1,100 people were executed in the 1980's. Death sentences were carried out by hanging.
Reacting to the ruling, Justice Minister Dullah Omar said the prisoners would be quickly moved from death row. According to prison wardens, the announcement set off a round of wild celebration among condemned inmates at Pretoria's Central Prison.
Elsewhere, however, comments on the ruling revealed the continuing depths of political division among South Africans that typically run along racial lines, 1 year after the formal end of apartheid.
On radio talk shows today, reactions were deeply split between black and white, with the former typically applauding the abolition of the death penalty, while the latter, invoking high crime rates, criticized what many whites say is a gradual slide away from law and order.
"Under the A.N.C., the message is that people can commit any crime and get away with it," said one caller to a Johannesburg radio station, referring to the African National Congress, the party of President Nelson Mandela.
Crime has become a highly emotional issue among many whites here, even though blacks are overwhelmingly represented among the victims of violence. Last weekend in Johannesburg alone, 42 people were killed, 477 businesses and homes were broken into and 34 women were reported raped.
While whites complained of a spreading sense of impunity, many blacks reacted by noting that they had been disproportionately made victims of the death penalty in the past through wrongful arrests and convictions.
Moreover, with the death penalty much more likely to be applied to blacks than to whites under apartheid, capital punishment had become as powerfully emotional an issue for many blacks as crime has become for many whites.
Mr. Mandela himself made this point in a statement to the court during his trial for incitement in 1962. "I have grave fears that this system of justice may enable the guilty to drag the innocent before the courts," he said. "It enables the unjust to prosecute and demand vengeance against the just. It may tend to lower the standards of fairness applied in the country's courts by white judicial officers to black litigants."
Source: New York Times, June 7, 1995