Not many people will sympathise with a person on a death row, perhaps understandably so, considering that in most cases such a person would have committed gruesome acts on other persons. It is this assumption, on the backdrop of a surge of support for capital punishment, that makes speaking for the rights of death row inmates almost unthinkable. Botswana has been hanging people, yes people, for several decades now. With murder cases not relenting, the practice has become ineffective and of no consequence.
10th October is World Day Against the Death Penalty and this year is the 16th of such commemoration. Perhaps, this is the time to cast proper attention to capital punishment and ponder if it does serve any positive purpose; to establish if the whole process until the hanging day, is conducted under proper humanly conditions. There is also need to assess if the capital punishment itself does not play a role in the increase of murder cases. That is, with the state killing people, doesn’t this lift the moral burden from the potential murderer? If the state kills, why can’t I?
What immediately comes to mind is the secrecy surrounding the entire process, the quarantine of the convicts, and secret disposal of their bodies. The absence of transparency is a fertile ground for abuse and reduces chances of accountability. Secrecy kills certain values that a society would like to preserve and protect. Media reports have in the past alluded to some violence during execution as some of the convicts were resisting the rope. Without transparency, we cannot really be sure that such convicts are executed through the normal, legal method or out of frustration, they are eliminated by use of unorthodox methods. This is not far-fetched as there are cases in which security officers go over board when confronted by hostile clients.
In 2010, Oliver Modise, then writer at The Telegraph, penned an article under the headline, ‘Dead men speaking-voices from death row’, based on a letter from some death row inmates. That was the closest we could have a peep into the waiting Cells at the gallows. Not a pretty sight, according to the five author-inmates.
Modise poignantly summarised the letter by capturing the ‘the smell, rancid sweat and stale urine and faeces’ which they wake up from in the last days before encounter the hangman.
A snippet from the letter is thus quoted:
“In between 1700 and 0500 hours we do not have access to toilets. The only toilet available to us is in the court yard. Once we are locked in our cell we cannot access this toilet. When we need to relief ourselves, that is when we need to pee or worse, the only thing at our disposal is a bucket that can only be emptied the following morning. Remember, there are five of us using a bucket for whatever relief and this has been going on for years. We are tired of raising this with prison officers who have all been turning a deaf ear”.
It is unknown if the conditions, particularly the toilet issue, have since improved although the then Minister responsible, Ramadeluka Seretse was quoted in the same paper assuring the nation that they were in the process of constructing the toilets at the time. His remorse, notwithstanding, the stench in the society’s moral character remains. The conditions for death row inmates, let alone the capital punishment itself, tell a story of a society uninterested in coming up with sustainable solutions to the murder cases and an effective punitive response.
The lazy reasoning of retribution is a desperate refrain from doing what is right; that is, to think about possible solutions. This escapism, riding on irrational populism has ensured that 50+ executions later, the country is no near to a solution; no research, no debate, nothing, Zilch!
In the meantime, the murders continue unabated. Some, like the gender based, could be easily cut down by effective public education to both men and women, girls and boys; the ones occurring in the meraka (cattle posts) and other poverty stricken dwellings require some research based approach. In short, not all murder cases are cut from same cloth; they need to be disaggregated and specifically targeted.
Chances of getting another letter from inside are very slim, if not completely out of question. The loopholes have obviously been plugged by now or the writers of the letters could have been long hung. It will take another whole time to have the brave ones emerge, and until then, we would not have a true glimpse into the inside of the gallows. The voices from the gallows will remain mute; dead!
* Thapelo Ndlovu is Editor, CommunityFiles.org