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The death penalty should always be condemned

The Church has a clear view on the death penalty: it is inhumane and should always be condemned. In light of Botswana executing a man last week, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya reminds the local Church and faithful to never tire of reminding governments of the sanctity of all life.

News of the Botswana government executing a man convicted of killing his partner and their child has, predictably, created some excitement on social media and reignited international debate on the ethics and usefulness of capital punishment.

Joseph Tselayarona was last week hanged following the murder of Ngwanyanaotsile Keikanne and their three-year-old son, Miguel in 2010.

The Tselayarona case highlights the dangerous levels of violence against women and children and forces a comparison of how various states deal with violence against women and children.

Incidentally, if Tselayarona had only killed his partner, he would have had to serve the 20 year sentence imposed by the court for that particular crime. The death penalty was in respect to the murder of their child, Miguel.

According to the Botswana multi-media news platform, The Voice, the European Union Delegation to Botswana reacted critically to Tselayarona’s execution, condemning Botswana for its position on the death penalty.

Joseph Tselayarona
Joseph Tselayarona

Joseph Tselayarona“The death penalty is a cruel and inhumane punishment. There is no evidence that it has a better deterrent effect than imprisonment, and judicial and other errors in its application are irrevocable and irreversible, which is why most of the countries in the world have stopped applying it,” read a statement by the delegation.

The EU further called on government to initiate a public debate on its use of the death penalty as agreed in the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council.

At the time of publishing, neither the South African government nor the Africa Union had issued a statement regarding the Botswana execution. This, in spite of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in April 2015 putting the abolition of the death penalty at the heart of its debates. The session adopted a draft regional treaty to help African Union member states to move away from capital punishment.

Closer to home

In South Africa, calls to “bring back the death penalty” are not unfamiliar, especially after every gruesome murder or rape or, as in the Tselayarona case, our neighbour’s confirm their status as the no-nonsense household in the neighbourhood.

Naturally, the faithful find themselves enveloped in these emotional conversations, but the Catholic Church’s teaching on the subject is clear, consistent and unambiguous.

Speaking to a congregation made up of cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns, catechists, and ambassadors from many countries last October, Pope Francis called the death penalty an “inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity in whatever form it is carried out.

“And [it] is, of itself, contrary to the Gospel, because it is freely decided to suppress a human life that is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator, and of which, in the final analysis, God alone is the true judge and guarantor.”

Despite this clear and consistent line by religious and many progressive social movements and some political leaders, capital punishment remains a popular refrain even among those who call themselves devout.

In a country like South Africa which, according to official police crime statistics, reported that 19,016 people were murdered in 2017 (up from 18,673 in 2016), it is not hard to see why a country that executes its murderers might have admirers.

Just this week, a police station became a crime scene when five police officers were shot dead in an apparent robbery in Engcobo, in the Eastern Cape. The call for stricter punishment soon followed. But to complicate things further, conviction rates for serious crimes such as murder are notoriously low, with some researchers suggesting that as much as one in three murders goes unsolved.

From these statistics, it is not hard to see why either vigilantism or the idea of the state killing murderers is attractive to many in the country and why it would take a European multilateral organisation to condemn Botswana.

This situation therefore calls on the Church in Africa to put pressure on governments to simultaneously tackle the twin evils of an inefficient criminal justice system and the high handedness of the state.

While it is easy to lay the issue at the door of the bishops’ conference, the Tselayarona case is yet another reminder of the role the laity can play in the promotion of basic human rights, social justice and gender equality.

Parishioners can start taking seriously the work of “increasing awareness of the suffering, injustice, divisions and violence in the territories served by the conference” through the Justice and Peace desk. The main purpose of the desk is as the name might imply: “to promote justice and peace action in the light of Catholic Social Teachings as an integral of the evangelising mission of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa, within the 29 dioceses”.

For the killing of Tselayarona to be the last by the state, Church leadership, the clergy and the laity must never get tired of reminding governments of the sanctity of all life.

Image credit: Patrick Feller

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.