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Dismantling the Gallows

THIS week South Africa took another step away from its past, a step that put it in advance of some countries with much longer democratic traditions, notably the United States. South Africa's newly formed constitutional court unanimously struck down the death penalty.

Executions have been on hold in South Africa since 1990, when a moratorium was imposed by the former government at the time of Nelson Mandela's release from prison. The new multiracial government, elected last year, couldn't agree on capital punishment and left the issue to the courts.

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Before 1990, South Africa was known for frequent executions, hanging dozens of people a year. Mr. Mandela's African National Congress opposed the death penalty, charging that it was selectively applied to blacks. But recent petitioners for extending the moratorium have included white, pro-apartheid conservatives, some of whose comrades are on death row for politically motivated murder.

South Africa's high court - whose membership includes seven whites, three blacks, and one Indian - based its ruling on a constitutionally protected "right to life and dignity." With this decision, South Africa joins the majority of industrialized, democratic nations that have rejected the gallows, electric chair, firing squad, and lethal injection as means of justice.

The court's ruling won't sit well with many South Africans. National Party leader Frederik de Klerk has pledged to push for restoration of the death penalty, and polls indicate that 80 percent of South Africa's whites and almost half its black citizens support capital punishment. As it struggles toward full democracy and greater equality, the country is awash in crime. The court noted that the death penalty has never been a proven deterrent to crime, but many, doubtless, will see the end of capital punishment as a boon to criminals.

More likely, it could be a boon to civilization, helping create an environment of greater civility in one country - certainly not the only one - that greatly needs it.

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