22 FEBRUARY 2021 | GENEVA
Before 1994, South Africa had one of the highest rates of judicial executions in the world. Between 1960 and 1989, the apartheid regime executed just over three thousand prisoners, an average of roughly one hundred a year. The number of executions peaked in 1987 with one hundred and sixty five persons hanged that year.
The application of the death penalty in South Africa bears the heavy marks of racial apartheid, with poor black men forming the overwhelming majority of those hanged. A survey of those hanged between 1960 and 1977 shows that most had an average of three years of schooling while nearly half had no schooling at all. Only one, John Harris, the only white political prisoner to be hanged, had a university degree.
In the post-1994 South Africa, the country’s constitution guarantees everyone the right to life. For South Africa, and as defined by our Constitutional Court, the rights to life and dignity are regarded as the source of all fundamental rights. To this end, the Court invalidated the death penalty because it is a form of cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment. It therefore infringes on the right to dignity.
South Africa recognises that there is a global increase in states that are abolishing the death penalty. We also recognise that the issue of the death penalty continues to be divisive and raises controversies within and outside the continent between abolitionist and retentionist states in various fora.
We maintain that we should take a cautious approach when addressing the question of the death penalty and should not be seen to be naming and shaming of those countries that still apply death penalty in their jurisdictions. We encourage collaborative and constructive engagement with the retentionist states bearing in mind the sovereign right of states to develop their own legal systems in accordance with their international legal obligations.
Notwithstanding, we continue to dialogue with and encourage retentionist states to a shift towards the moratorium on the death penalty. Dialogue aimed at moving in that direction should continue.
I thank you.