Academics and students from the University of Cape Town gather outside parliament to picket against gender-based violence on September 4 2019. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ ESA ALEXANDER
Academics and students from the University of Cape Town gather outside parliament to picket against gender-based violence on September 4 2019. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ ESA ALEXANDER

The rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana in Cape Town rightly sparked an outburst of anger in a country that one would have thought has grown inured to gender violence.

But no one would have expected the justice minister turning it into a discussion about the sanctity of the constitution and inadvertently highlighting how populism is especially dangerous in a time of crisis. When a nation is mourning and angry, constitutional niceties can seem a luxury, and politicians, having seen their own impotence exposed by such events, cannot be counted on to defend it.

The crime against the young UCT student who was attacked and killed while picking up the post, alongside the shooting and killing of boxing champion Leighandre “Baby Lee” Jegels on Friday by a man serving as a police officer, is worthy of nationwide outrage.

These were not the first and won’t be the last crimes in this country that are so revolting that the reaction of some sections of a besieged society is to call for a return of the death penalty. It’s a natural reaction, though one that’s unlikely to offer a solution.

Whether we are open to [a] referendum or not, at this stage I cannot say. It is something we can take further as a discussion to the cabinet
Justice minister Ronald Lamola

It’s hard to blame citizens who think the return of the hangman might be justified in the face of this national crisis of violent crime. Some see it as a potential solution and deterrent, while for others an eye-for-an-eye revenge motive will do. So it’s not unsurprising to see more than half-a-million people have signed a petition calling for the return of the death penalty.

There’s no reason for us to replay the debates, though it’s worth noting that the lack of the death penalty in the UK doesn’t make it a centre of violent crime. In the US, rare among developed countries in embracing this sort of punishment, the possibility of being executed doesn’t seem to be a deterrent for those who would use guns to kill en masse.

For SA, the matter was settled by the Constitutional Court more than two decades ago when it found in the State v Makwanyane case that the section in the Criminal Procedure Act that allowed for the death penalty was incompatible with the country’s supreme law.

This is what justice minister Ronald Lamola should have referenced when asked a simple question about something that regularly comes up. Instead, he told a news conference on Tuesday: “Whether we are open to [a] referendum or not, at this stage I cannot say. It is something we can take further as a discussion to the Cabinet.”

In keeping with how the government has bungled communication on key issues of concern to the populace in the most recent past, the department backtracked in a statement later on Tuesday, saying all that Lamola meant was if the issue is brought to the Cabinet it would have to discuss it.

It did not say who would initiate such a discussion with the Cabinet and how.

Otherwise, it’s hard to argue against the points made in the statement detailing the legal and moral cases against the reinstatement of the  judicial killings.

It quoted former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson: “The greatest deterrent to crime is the likelihood that offenders will be apprehended, convicted and punished. It is that which is clearly lacking in our criminal justice system; and it is at this level and through addressing the causes of crime that the state must seek to combat lawlessness.” 

Citizens have to be vigilant when politicians even hint at meddling with constitutionally enshrined rights because that seems like the easiest option for them to distract us from wider social ills and the failure of governance, and offer easy solutions.

As the justice department itself points out, after the death penalty the demands “will be to recriminalise abortion and then later it will be to take away the protection accorded to the LGBTIQ community”.

You can add more and more to that list until the constitutional order has been dismantled.