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South Africans Debate Death Penalty Ban 10 Years Later


South Africa abolished the death penalty 10 years ago, but the debate over whether that was a good idea, continues. The publicity over the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams in California is prompting new discussion of the issue.

At a local mall in a suburb of Johannesburg it seemed that most people knew about the Stanley "Tookie" Williams execution. One man said it is an issue that is followed very closely by most South Africans given their country's violent past.

Johanne, 46, is torn over whether the death penalty in his country should be reinstated, after executions were abolished 10-years ago.

"It is difficult to say, having been a soldier in the army myself," he said. "Death has never been something that can pay for the wrongs of someone else."

But when asked how he would feel about the death penalty if a member of his family were a victim of a violent crime, Johanne hesitated before answering.

"One can only make a proper judgment or proper assessment if you are caught in that situation," he noted.

After South Africa's landmark election in 1994, the Constitutional Court abolished the death penalty.

While most believed that a move from an authoritarian repressive regime to a human rights based system was a step in the right direction, South Africans still faced burgeoning violent crime. Organized crime found fertile ground and violent crime flourished in the first few years of the new democracy.

But as Amanda Dissel of the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation notes, violent crimes have decreased in the past 10 years.

"The most of the serious offenses have gone down," she said. "Crimes like murder have been reduced from about 25,000 to 19,000 this year."

Despite the decrease, some South Africans still live with fear.

Rudy, 21, is a student in Johannesburg. He says the level of rape and murder is too high in South Africa and he lives in fear on a daily basis, and therefore, the death penalty needs to be reinstated to deter these violent crimes.

"It worked in the past. I think it will work again," said Mr. Rudy.

But, Malusi, 34, disagrees. He called the death penalty very barbaric and cruel.

"I will not say criminals must not be punished, there must be harsh punishments," he said. "There are so many things that they can do, the government, to get people to pay back for their deeds, and they can rehabilitate them."

There have been no recent surveys indicating how many South Africans favor the death penalty, the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliations Amanda Dissel says that people in South Africa tend to demand severe forms of justice.

But, she points out, a recent survey by the Institute for Security Studies found that if respondents were given the details of a particular crime, they were more likely to be more lenient on the offender.

"So they were more likely to take into account the various factors of the crime, the nature of the circumstances of the criminal and the extent of harm etc, when they made those decisions," she added.

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