South Africans ponder a return to the death penalty
April 24, 1999
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- As the United States struggles to understand yet another episode of bloodshed in its schools, South Africa is confronting its own wave of such violence.
Across the equator and an ocean away, the murder of one school principal and the beating of another by a mob of students have inflamed South African opinion. Those attacks -- and several other high-profile crimes -- have fueled calls for a restoration of the death penalty, which was outlawed after the 1994 election when the black-led African National Congress took power.
The ANC faces its second all-race election on June 2, and it is feeling the political heat from opposition leaders and the public over crime and punishment.
Gwendolyn Thandi Jele was one of South Africa's latest victims of violent crime. The 56-year-old principal of a Soweto primary school was gunned down while questioning three young men who had entered the school by scaling a broken wall.
When she confronted the young men, they shot her in the stomach. As she lay bleeding on the ground, the assailants took the keys to her car, then snatched her wristwatch and necklace.
Colleagues, friends, relatives and political leaders all expressed sorrow and anger -- and that something must be done to stop the violence. They were concerned that perpetrators of such crimes are imprisoned for a short time, and then come out to commit crimes again.
Such sentiments are resonating throughout South African society, one of the few areas of common ground between blacks and whites in this otherwise polarized country.
Recent statistics show that violent crime has mostly leveled off -- but at high rates, with a murder or attempted murder every 12 minutes on average and a rape on average every 26 seconds.
No public opinion polls have recently recorded the public's support for a restoration of the death penalty -- but informal surveys support one taken two years ago that showed 71 percent favored a return to the practice of executions.
ANC still opposes death penalty
Some opposition parties have seized on such public sentiment to call for a referendum on the issue.
"Of course, there must be a referendum on the death penalty, and the will of the people must prevail," said Mike Muendane of the Pan Africanist Congress.
But others are calling for an outright return to hanging.
"I believe it should be reintroduced," said the Federal Alliance's Louis Luyt. "I look at America for instance, where they are bringing back the death penalty. There must be some reasoning behind this."
But the ruling African National Congress has categorically ruled out either a referendum or restoration.
"In the history of South Africa, tens of thousands of black people were hanged and it didn't do any good," said Vice President Thabo Mbeki.
That was the legacy of South Africa's brutal apartheid past, when there was no distinction between freedom fighters and common criminals.
But at funerals like that of Gwendolyn Thandi Jele, it was clear that political leaders like Mbeki were being challenged to reconcile with the conflicting demands of South Africa's liberated present.
African National Congress (ANC)
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