An eye for an eye by Margie Orford

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The death penalty is one of those conversational cleavers; Ii will divide any dinner party neatly into those for and those against. Compelling arguments for revenge and for compassion will be made, but it is unlikely that one side will persuade the other that hanging is right. Or wrong.

Crime writers generally have taken the easy way out of this dilemma. Killing fictional people is our core business, as is the restitution of fictional law and order. Few readers are willing to wait out the length of a trial to see a violent criminal get his come-uppance, which probably explains the high numbers of killings of the bad guys in the final chapters of many crime novels. There is of course that visceral, Old Testament thrill we feel when someone truly bad pays the ultimate price for their sins. This is an unofficial death penalty, a kind of literary vigilantism, that elides the complexity of a democratic society’s desire for punitive and its simultaneous aspiration towards restorative justice.

The spectre of judicial murder has never left South Africa. This is a country that executed a vast number of people. Between 1921 and 1989 at least 4003 convicted murderers, rapists and political prisoners were hanged at Pretoria Central Prison. According to a report in the Sunday Times, at least 130 political prisoners were executed there. But calls for the return of the death penalty are frequent and loud.

South Africa’s constitution outlawed the death penalty and in 1996, two years after the first democratic elections which ushered in Mandela as president, the notorious gallows were dismantled. They have now been restored and will be unveiled on the 8th of December. The Minister of Correctional Services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, whose department has been driving the initiative, says that the restoration and the unveiling was her department’s ‘small contribution towards paying homage and tribute to all South Africans who were executed. I would want SA to see this as part of a healing process and part of nation-building.’

The names of all the executed prisoners – common-law and political – will be commemorated.  “We don’t want to leave out the names of common-law criminals who were also executed,’ the minister said, ‘because we are saying that this [apartheid] was a system that was unjust, cruel and inhumane.’

This attempt at bringing ‘closure’ bears witness to the bureaucratic horror of the state’s killing of its citizens. The cupboard with its seven ropes, the yardstick for measuring the height of those about to be hanged, the fan to cool sweating officials as they prepared the prisoners for death. Because, according to this report, up to seven executions used to take place simultaneously.

South Africa has conducted a complex and fascinating experiment with the memory, truth telling and the meaning of violence. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the best known, but there have been attempts, political, commemorative and artistic, to deal with our violent past and how it affects the present. This comes from a belief that the traumas of the past, collective and individual, can be healed and contained.

Madeleine Fullard, of the National Prosecuting Authority’s Missing Person’s Task Force, which originated in the TRC and whose mandate is to trace people killed or disappeared by Apartheid forces, had this to say about the commemorative restoration of the gallows at Pretoria Central.

‘Last year we arranged a visit to the former gallows area for families of people hanged in the 1960s. Believe me, they were more traumatised at seeing the room used for file storage with pigeons droppings all around. It was hugely emotional and offensive to see the erasure of a space where Benjamin Moloise took his last breath. I was speechless with shock at seeing that the gallows, such a powerful emblem of oppression, had been destroyed. They [the Department of Correctional Services] have done the right thing. The families stood beside the dusty filing cabinets, which partially concealed the faint traces of the trap door, and called farewell to their deceased family members, who fell there to the metal basin below. It was more painful to be present in a forgotten space like that, than to witness the trappings of death.’

Best to leave the eye-for-an-eye style of justice to fiction. In the messy complexity of everyday life, finding ways of bearing witness to past horror is a valuable, fraught and contradictory process. There is great value, however, in bringing into sharp focus the barbarity of the death penalty.

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