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HomeNewsabaThembu king’s application for presidential pardon begs Biblical wisdom

abaThembu king’s application for presidential pardon begs Biblical wisdom

Imprisoned abaThembu king, Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, has applied for presidential pardon. This action has inspired Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya to consider how the Christian imperative to show care for the imprisoned should apply. He learns that those jailed must at least show themselves to be sorry if they want to be freed.

We are hardly into the Easter Octave and already we have a modern enactment of one of the more famous Passover side stories: to release or not to release Barabbas.

In the local edition of the drama, the role of Barabbas is played by abaThembu King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced that he is considering an application that he has received to pardon iNkosi Dalindyebo.

As in Barabbas’ time, the application for this undeserved release is layered with political intrigue. It comes as we approach Freedom Day and the general election in South Africa. And, also, at a time when Christians recall the biblical feast of Passover.

There is no disputing the crimes committed by the king but there appears to be an almost unanimous clamour, by political parties, for his release. The Economic Freedom Front and Azanian People’s Organisation have both called for the king’s pardon. While his former political party, the Democratic Alliance, wants him to continue wearing prison overalls.

Like Pontius Pilate did with Barabbas, Ramaphosa must consider how his decision impacts his own grasp of political power and influence. The president acknowledges the undisputed fact that, his bloodline aside, Dalindyebo is imprisoned for committing serious crimes against his subjects.

iNkosi Dalindyebo was convicted in 2009 on seven counts of kidnapping, three of assault, three of arson, defeating the ends of justice and culpable homicide.

It is also interesting to note that the man who now wants an early release had no qualms when it came to his victims wait for justice.

The case dragged for five years due to, what the Supreme Court of Appeal described as, the accused’s own “dilatory and obstructive behaviour”. He changed lawyers 11 times.

It was only in October 2015 after he had exhausted all legal avenues, that he started his 12-year sentence. If released now, he will have served less than a third of his sentence.

For this reason, St Matthew’s description of Barabbas as a “notorious prisoner” (Matthew 27:6) is not entirely unfitting. 

To add to the controversy of Dalindyebo’s application, it comes at a time when many anti-apartheid freedom fighters and those who fought in defence of apartheid are languishing in jail, even though both believe that they have met the standard to qualify for amnesty as given by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: full disclosure and an obvious political motive.

Putting it bluntly, it would be an injustice and an abuse of presidential prerogative to pardon King Dalindyebo just to appease a section of the electorate.

Unpalatable as it might be, 25 years after apartheid rule, those who participated on both sides of the fight against white supremacy and apartheid, should be at the top of the list of those being considered for pardon.

Treating one prisoner as special is to treat all others unjustly. This is markedly different to Pilate’s logic, when saying: “if you release one, then you must release the other”.

From a Christian standpoint there is further reason for having clear protocols when it comes to a prisoner’s release. We are called to show care for prisoners.

“…I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36) makes it clear just how privileged the prisoners are that failure to have visited them (and presumably treated them humanely while in prison) condemns those who do to eternal damnation. 

Prisoners generally know what they are being held for. Even those who are wrongly incarcerated, have an idea of how long they will be imprisoned and what they would need to do to be eligible for early release.

While we have to embrace the potential for rehabilitation in every convicted criminal — in other words, as St Augustine’s famous dictum put it, “every saint has a past and every sinner has future” — this should be true for all prisoners, the Tembu king included.

But he must be seen to have seen the error of his ways. Even in the scene on Calvary, it was only the repentant “good thief” who was promised paradise.

The “other thief” did not ask for mercy. Presumably, it’s not because mercy was in short supply, but because he thought he was beyond the reach of mercy and asking for such grace was beneath him.

Even in the Gospels, mercy and forgiveness cannot be acquired by association or by common purpose. It must be asked for.

A further factor to consider is that the king’s victims were the rural poor and vulnerable. His need for mercy must be weighed against their need for justice and a sense that they will not be persecuted, again, if he is released.z

At his trial, the abaThembu royal said it was within his rights as a king to mete out the kind of punishment inflicted on him. Nothing suggests that his mind has changed.

It is therefore not unreasonable to expect that those who have suffered under his reign, could be persecuted anew for having brought the indignity of prison life to a king.

Any person who feels asking for forgiveness is beneath them and has no intention of attempting to reconcile with those he has harmed excludes themselves from the grace of reconciliation. In King Dalindyebo’s case, this grace is that of being considered worthy of pardon. 

* 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.