Our voice should be heard on death penalty

The death of Bafana Bafana and Orlando Pirates goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa has once again rekindled the debate about capital punishment. As the nation gnashes its teeth in the outpouring of emotion that follows the unnatural death of a celebrity, it is unsurprising that there should be calls for those found guilty of his killing to be put to death themselves.

Even in a world where the death penalty is viewed as anachronistic and barbaric, I sincerely believe that our political leaders should look at the possibility of calling a referendum on the death penalty for some murders, including those committed in an armed robbery. If people want the death penalty, they should have it. That is democracy.

We want to live in a deep democracy. We want to choose our government, be able to express our opinions freely, have our voices heard, and be able to shape the economic and political life through their active citizenship like referendums.

We want a framework that ensures the rule of law and justice for all. As citizens of a democratic country we want elected representatives who are accountable to us.

Democracy needs civic engagement, inclusive, transparent and effective mechanisms and institutions, mutual trust, a sense of collective responsibility and courage to work for the common good. Democracy requires daily vigilance and constant action. A referendum on the death penalty falls within these principles.

There are many arguments against and in favour of the death penalty which was abolished in 1995, a year after the demise of apartheid. There are those who say too much attention is paid to the so-called human rights of offenders. What about the rights of victims and their families?

There are also the philosophical arguments about how, if we hold human life sacrosanct, can we protect it by taking another life.

Also, opponents of the death penalty are notorious for twisting statistics to suit their own ends and for caring more about the lives of murderers than about those of ordinary, decent people like Meyiwa.

Many people believe we live in a violent and lawless society in which the criminal is seen to get away with it. I do too.

Given the fact that crime rates continue to soar, it is clear that the existing forms and scale of punishment are regarded as largely ineffective, but punishment must also act as a form of justice for the victim, the victim's family and the law-abiding majority.

I am not totally in favour of the death penalty, but it should be revisited for specific offences. If people arm up and go out to rob and decide to take out anyone who gets in their way, they should pay the price. It should be a matter for each individual case.

There is a moral choice to be made between saving the lives of the innocent and taking the lives of the guilty. That is the choice we have to make.

I don't think you can ignore that choice because if our lawmakers say the death penalty is a deterrent but we will not have capital punishment, then the government is condemning innocent people.

There is another moral dilemma. Cases such as the murder of Meyiwa will always harden the public's attitude to those guilty of murder. But there are many people who die like Meyiwa every day. It is just that they are not famous. They are not celebrities.

Those found guilty of such crimes do deserve to be punished, and in keeping with such terrible crimes the punishments deserve to be severe.

There is another argument which says to kill the guilty party leaves no room to make amends for miscarriages of justice and gives the guilty little time to come to grips with the enormity of the evils they have committed. The argument goes that if we value the concept of rehabilitation of offenders then a system which includes the death penalty also appears contrary to this aim.

There is also the argument that those who say the death penalty would act as a deterrent display complete ignorance of the individuals they seek to deter because those who commit crime do so on impulse, or in the firm belief they will not be apprehended.

True, when one takes all these factors into consideration then one can understand why our new government abolished the death penalty and why, despite the heady emotions raised in cases such as the daily murder of innocent people for items such as cellphones, including the rape and murder of innocent children, our political leaders put their heads before their hearts and refuse to allow capital punishment to return.

While I accept there are strong arguments of what is appropriate in a civilised and moral society over the right to take any life, I approach matters from a different angle.

We operate a system understandably, which aims to identify and punish the guilty in a way that minimises the risk of conviction of the innocent. That means we still accept that mistakes will inevitably happen.

By mistakes, I don't mean simply where evidence is later deemed unreliable and insufficient to sustain a conviction. I mean where people are categorically proven innocent by new evidence or a revision of existing evidence.

It is true that in many murders across the country, police prosecutions are often based on flimsy forensic exhibits and speculation. I don't think any reasonable person would argue in favour of execution for a criminal whose conviction rested solely on those foundations.

Indeed, I agree that one of the biggest dangers with the death penalty and is still recognised today is the danger that innocent people would be hanged because of miscarriages of justice.

However, these days DNA evidence can identify those responsible for the appalling crimes. First of all, let us look at the science available to convict one who is alleged to have committed a crime. Where positive DNA samples are available, this provides undeniable proof in determining guilt or innocence even up to one billion to one. That is good enough for me to see someone hang or be released.

One may ask: What satisfaction will I get when that legally convicted killer's life is ended? None really, except to know that he or she will not kill another human being and I find that comforting, particularly when I read of so many instances of this happening.

I would also be comforted in knowing that my taxes will not be used to feed and entertain this wretched creature while law-abiding pensioners starve to death.

Punishment must be the cornerstone of our faith in any system of justice. Not only does society require that the guilty be punished, it also demands to be satisfied that the punishment is of a form which ensures that convicted criminals will not re-offend.

Again, criminologists would argue that evidence indicates that a very high proportion of offenders return to their old habits when released.

Whether that fact is attributable to the failure of the legal punishment system to reform and rehabilitate the criminal, the reluctance of many criminals to be reformed or the unwillingness of society at large to give those with convictions a second chance has been an issue of furious debate for decades.

Bringing back the death penalty would send a very strong signal to narcissists that there are indeed limits on their behaviour, beyond sitting in a warm cell getting three square meals a day.

I believe that if the death penalty is administered successfully, surely and justly, it will save lives.

Let democracy thrive. Our country has become an increasingly brutish place where lethal violence has lost its power to shock, therefore the ban on capital punishment should be revisited through a referendum.

Rich Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm, a content development and reputation management agency.