Twenty-one hanged in seventy-two hours

As many people were breakfasting yesterday, South Africa's annual tally of executions reached an all-time high with the hanging of seven men in Pretoria. With seven hanged on Wednesday and seven on Tuesday, yesterday's executions brought the number of people hanged in 1987 to 164, the highest annual total since Union.

Both the executions and the grisly record which they helped notch up passed virtually unnoticed. Hangings have become so commonplace that they rarely impinge on the consciousness of the public. Only the more unusual executions attract attention: the hanging of white men, particularly if their victims are black women or well-known whites, or of guerrillas. After the Act of Union in 1910, the number of executions rose steadily until the mld-1960s: the annual average from 1910 to 1947 was 21; from 1948 to 1968 it was 70.

During the mid-1960s the annual number of executions passed the 100 mark on several occasions. Then it dropped temporarily, falling to 43 in the early 1970s. But since then the trend has been upward: in 1985 137 people were executed; now, with three weeks still to go before the end of the year, the 1987 total is 164. The population of South Africa has, of course, increased over the past two decades.

But during the period the four nominally independent TBVC states have been excised from South Africa thus theoretically reducing the population. Each of these states has its own gallows and own executions, although they have on occasion hired the more experienced executioner from South Africa. Tuesday's execution of the seven men' came less than two weeks after two white men, one a teenager were hanged for the murder and rape of black women.

The execution of the two white men, Johannes Wessels, 19, and George Scheepers, was noteworthy for one reason: very few whites have been hanged for killing blacks and none for raping black women. Rape is a capital offence. Most blacks convicted of raping white women end up on the gallows. A previous minister of justice boasted in 1955 that no black man sentenced to death for raping a white-woman had been reprieved.

In a recent study Professor John Dugard, director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, identified two areas of apparent racial bias in South Africa's judicial system: inter-racial homicides and assaults and interracial sexual offences.  In both cases, he said the evidence suggested the offender was likely to be punished more harshly if he was black and his victim white than vice versa.

Asked whether the hanging of Wesssels and Scheepers could be seen as an indication that South Africa was shifting away from racial bias on the gallows, Gilbert Marcus, also of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, replied cautiously. He noted that the number of executions are disproportionately higher for blacks than whites (of the 164 men executed in 1987 thus far, only nine were white).

Marcus concluded: "There is an increasing consciousness of the necessity to be colour blind in sentencing. The consciousness is still limited. It is higher among Supreme Court judges than magistrates. I don't think you can put it higher than that."

This week's hangings came after the Appeal Court upheld the sentence of death imposed on five men and one women, the Sharpeville Six, for their part in the murder of councillor Khuzwayo Dlamini at the start of thec1984 revolt in the black townships. One of the Sharpeville Six, Theresa Ramashamola, 24, is a woman. If she is executed – and only President PW Botha can save her now – she will be the first woman to be executed for a crime which some South Africans believe was a political action.

As the United Democratic Front put it in a statement demanding clemency: "It is apartheid that is the violent system. It is apartheid that eventually begets responsive violence from its victims… Were it not for apartheid the six South Africans would not now be sitting on Death Row." 

Since the outbreak of the 1984 revolt 44 people, all black have been sentenced to hang for murders which, prima facie, have their roots in the political turmoil of our times. Five have been executed. None has escaped the noose so far. In 1985, 137 people were hanged and 35 reprieved; 1987 has seen an increase in the number of hangings and a decrease in reprieves to 18.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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