In South Africa, indeed around the world, we are raised on a strict diet of justice as retribution. With violent crimes on a shocking upsurge, with the hideous crimes of child rape and abuse on the increase, there are nowadays frequent calls – backed by wide public support – to restore capital punishment. Mercifully, South Africa’s Constitutional Court has ruled that the death penalty – which South Africans eliminated at the same time we were liberated from apartheid – is unconstitutional.
Sadly, in many places in the world, it seems that men and women have not advanced beyond the biblical admonition of “an eye for an eye” in their yearning for retribution. Indeed, some Muslim countries amputate the hands of convicted thieves in public. But that biblical adage was in fact invoked originally to curb blood feuds from claiming the innocent relatives of the person who committed the killing. “An eye for an eye” asks that the culprit should be the sole target, and not others, whose only crime was to be related to him.
So the “eye for an eye” adage was not intended to mean what it has come to mean, namely that killing be paid for by another killing. Given the brutality of the apartheid era, that would have never worked in my homeland.
Some South Africans called for Nuremberg-type trials, especially for perpetrators of those atrocities that were designed to maintain the vicious apartheid system. There were demands that the guilty be brought to book.