In the past week, South Africa’s collective psyche was shaken by two separate but similarly callous incidents in which young children were caught in the crossfire of crime, prompting many to hanker nostalgically for the hangman’s noose.
Six-year-old Mongezi Phike of Ekangala was at least found alive after an anguished six-day ordeal with the hijackers who had assaulted his father and sped away with him. Four-year-old Taegrin Morris of Reiger Park was not so fortunate: also involved in a hijacking, he died after being dragged by the moving car while entangled in his seat belt.
These two children are the youngest faces of South Africa’s unending curse of violent crime. Their story has enraged the nation, prompting some to call for a referendum on the death penalty – that is, a popular vote to restore the practice of violent criminals being killed by the state. This emotional call is understandable, given the huge sense of loss and anger at deaths such as that of Taegrin – but it is irrational. It is no different, really, to the cries of angry crowds chanting: “Bring us the criminals and we will kill them.”
It is the desperate cry of a desperate people who have been repeatedly traumatised by crime and emotionally drained by constantly having to deal with its consequences.
This cry arises in the absence of a truly effective criminal justice system. The police force has yet to win the battle against crime. Its core leadership – caught up in factional fights, corruption scandals and with the burden of the Marikana massacre still on its shoulders – is unable to boost the morale of the men and women in blue, who often feel they have been given an impossible task but not the tools and training with which to do it properly. (There have recently been some positive signs of a fresh attitude from the new police minister, but they are for the moment no more than a twinkle in his eye.)
Our prisons, another key part of our justice system, are by no means a reformative environment. Besides being mostly appallingly run, delays and other problems mean they are horribly crowded, overflowing with petty offenders and a paradise for hardened criminals. Yet the conviction rate is low. Our judiciary is overstretched and the justice department is struggling.
It is no surprise, then, that some believe the killers of Taegrin and the kidnappers of Mongezi should simply be killed. They believe, out of frustration, that this is an effective retributive measure – and that, in some way, it would stop the carnage. But in fact it would do nothing to tackle and uproot the underlying causes of crime.
South Africans are bone-weary of the criminals’ reign of terror and these offenders’ impunity in the face of law enforcement. The irrational call for a reconsideration of the death penalty – which was outlawed by our Constitution – will certainly intensify unless the public can begin to see some effective action and change in the state apparatus built to protect them. Our politicians and public servants urgently need to fix the system.