Crime puts death penalty on South African agenda

In an extraordinary turnabout, the African National Congress, which for years lost guerrillas and activists to apartheid hangmen, is reconsidering its opposition to the death penalty.

South Africa's post-apartheid surge in violent crime, which has tarnished the country's image, has spurred ANC policy-makers to make their most radical law-and-order recommendation yet. It came after a special weekend security summit attended by cabinet ministers and grassroots members.

The ANC has always been vociferously opposed to the death penalty. Hangings were stopped in 1990 when the National Party introduced political reforms, and no one has been executed in South Africa since.

When Nelson Mandela gave his famously defiant speech from the dock in 1964 before being sent to prison, he did it believing he faced the death penalty. But the rethink follows President Mandela's own admission three days ago that crime in South Africa is "out of control".

A series of attacks on high-profile victims in the last few weeks has highlighted the epidemic of murders, violent assaults and car hijacking. The father of soccer hero Doctor Khumalo was murdered by carjackers outside his Soweto home and a leading German industrialist was shot in his driveway by carjackers.

This week, the army and air force and 1,000 extra police officers were drafted into Johannesburg as part of a new offensive on crime. It is headed by two former Angolan war veterans who have promised to bring bush combat methods "to the jungle of Johannesburg".

The past few weeks, one of the country's leading judges was robbed in his home, and the Justice Minister, Dullah Omar, was forced to move his family to a safe house following violent confrontations between drug barons and Asian vigilantes in Cape Town. The vigilantes, frustrated at the government's apparent inability to curb crime, killed one gang leader by setting him on fire.

The security summit has asked the ANC's national executive committee to look at capital punishment again.

Reinstatement would breach the new democratic South Africa's constitution. But the pressure from ordinary people - black and white - on the government to come up with some answers is reaching fever pitch. The decision to make the recommendation drew loud applause from delegates.

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