THE death of retired Judge Ramon Leon at the weekend takes us back to the horrendous history of South Africa’s hanging judges – the apartheid-era judges who sent thousands of activists to the gallows. Ramon is the father of former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Tony Leon.
A report published in the Mail & Guardian in 1997 said Ramon sentenced Andrew Sibusiso Zondo, a member of the ANC armed wing uMkhonto We Sizwe to death for a blast that killed five people in an Amanzimtoti shopping mall in 1985. The bomb was in retaliation for the South African Defence Force (SADF) raid in Maseru, Lesotho in which nine people died. Zondo was executed on 9 September 1986 at the age of 19.
The death penalty was suspended in 1990 amid talks between the ANC and the Nationalist Party. It was abolished in 1994.
In 1997, five top judges, including former chief justice Michael Corbett, provided the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a 22-page written submission about the legal system’s pivotal role in apartheid human rights abuses.
The submission contained the “personal views and perspectives” of Corbett, his successor, Chief Justice Ismail Mahomed, Mahomed’s deputy, Judge Hennie van Heerden, Constitutional Court president Judge Arthur Chaskalson and his deputy, Judge Pius Langa.
The submission did not include the views of those who gave notorious pro-apartheid judgments or those who earned the title of “hanging judges”.
Among the submissions to the truth commission was one by human rights activist Paula McBride, who came “not as someone who was a victim of death row or capital punishment, but as someone who was more a witness to the effect that being sentenced to death, has on human beings, and not only the human beings who are sentenced to death, but those who look after them while they are waiting to be hanged and really, maybe more importantly I have come here because in my mind the death penalty is a gross human rights’ violation and it should be recorded in the record at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as a gross human rights’ violation.”
….”Today I am just going to look at really what death row meant from my experience. I started going there from 1987 until 1990 and I was there every day from 1987 to 1990 except for maybe one or two, so what I saw was the people who were being processed towards the execution chamber.
I saw the people, sometimes the day before they were due to be hanged and it is that that I want to talk about. There were in South Africa and I will talk about Pretoria Maximum Security Prison, because in a way that was the head office of hangings. There were hangings that were carried out in Bophutatswana and Venda and the Transkei and the Ciskei, but I did not have other than Bophutatswana, I didn’t have experience of that, so I am going to talk about what Pretoria Maximum Security was like as a visitor and as someone who worked on death row.
I think that probably the first and probably the most important image of it, is that it is a place that was perfectly designed to kill people. And it was perfectly designed in the sense of its normality. It was a prison that had very pretty little gardens around it, there were bambies, little bucks that were playing in the garden, there were rabbits out there, there was a pond and there were ducks and when you entered through that section, you went into the maximum security section, where there were perfectly ordinary people who were employed by the Department of Prisons to feed, to guard, to watch over the people who were under sentence of death.
They were in the womens’ section there were young, middle aged, old women who were there to look after them and in the mens’ section, there were young, middle aged and old men who were there to see that the people in their custody didn’t kill themselves before the State got a chance to kill them. So they were there to ensure that they remained healthy until there was an opportunity, until the State President denied clemency, till there was a chance for them to be given their seven days’ notice period…” McBrides full submission is here
The judges who passed death sentences were all white, and 95% of those they sentenced to hang were black. In the ten years before 1985, more than 1 000 people were hanged; only 22 of them were white.
The document draws a close link between the death sentence and the apartheid environment in which judges took their decisions.
Her report names a string of judges who became renowned for handing out the death sentence.