Share On

Andries Carl Nel

Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, South Africa

Fellow panelists
Comrades and friends

My thanks to the Community of Sant'Egidio for the invitation to participate in the International Meeting for Peace under the theme: "Living Together in a Time of Crisis: Family of Peoples, Family of God."

I wish Prof. Andrea Riccardi a speedy recovery from his indisposition. 

I would like to commend the Community of Sant'Egidio for it's consistent work in campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty. We are encouraged by the fact that, thanks to these and many other efforts, the tide of history has turned decisively in favour of abolition.

Seeing that we are being kindly hosted by Spain, we would like, as a host of Spain's victory in the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, to congratulate them on their home field, and thank all who helped us make the first World Cup to be held on African soil the tremendous success that it was. It was indeed an honour to host the Family of Peoples.

This past Saturday before flying here, I visited the Pretoria Art Museum to discuss a project to convert an old building into space for young artists to create and exhibit their work. Afterwards I went to a very special little restaurant in my neighbourhood to share a glass of champagne, or Methode Cap Classique as certain Europeans force us to call our champagne, with a few friends. It happened to be my birthday.

Two of these friends, one, the former head of the Architecture Department at the University of Pretoria, the other, the former Dean of the Faculty of Law at the same university were very excited when I told them that I would be flying to Barcelona later that evening. They started explaining in animated tones the optimal routes to experience the most of Gaudi's brilliant and inspiring architecture. 

Almost as an afterthought, the Professor of Architecture asked me what the purpose of my visit to Barcelona was.

I explained and said that I had been asked to speak on the theme, "No Justice without Life." She looked at me, this time with confusion and bewilderment: "I don't understand. What does that mean! It doesn't make sense!"

My immediate reaction was to be dismissive of this architect who had been speaking with such wild passion about Gaudi.

As a young lawyer I had worked for a number of years on the Capital Punishment and Penal Reform Project of Lawyers for Human Rights. My responsibilities included visiting death row at least once a week to assist many of the more than three hundred persons sentenced to death with appeals, reviews and some cases urgent interdicts to halt their executions by hanging from proceeding. In addition to the 300,  there were also 400 in the so-called independent homelands.

I was doing this work against a historical background of the death penalty, and the criminal justice system generally, being used as an instrument of racist oppression during Apartheid.

Because of this experience, I understood intuitively what I was meant by No Justice without Life. 

However, the more I thought about the Professor of Architecture's bewilderment, the more I began to think about the concepts justice and life, the inter-relationship between the two, and also how they might be related to the architecture of Gaudi.

Firstly, justice should not only been seen as abstract concept but one that involves living human beings. In this sense, life is indeed a precondition for justice.  

However, in this sense life is, equally, a precondition for injustice, injustice being the result of the actions of human beings, most often acting in groups to defend and/or advance their interests. In this sense, we can also say: "No Injustice without Life."

Maybe the South African contextual theologian, Fr. Albert Nolan helps us when he writes in his book, Hope in an Age of Despair that, "Basically there is only one value in the gospel: the value of love or compassion - justice of the heart. Or you could put it another way and say that the one and only value in the gospel is people. People are more important than money or status or knowledge or power or anything else in the world. God has one great value: people. That is why we speak about love, compassion, justice. These things stress the all-importance of people." 

He goes on to argue that, "...we must never forget that, for Jesus, love is a commandment and therefore a matter of justice. God commands us to love our neighbour. That makes it a matter of justice because now my neighbour has the right to beloved. Love is no longer a matter of doing my neighbour a favour out of the generosity of my heart. This kind of condescending and paternalistic love is rejected today by people who say, "Don't give us your 'charity.' Give us our rights." True love, however, is a matter of giving people their rights."

He explains that, "Justice in the Bible (God's justice) is the state of affairs in which things are right or true - that is to say, that they are what they are supposed to be, what God wants them to be. And the activity of doing justice is the activity of putting right whatever is wrong in the world", and that,

"(R)espect for human dignity is the basis of love and justice in social relationships. To love everyone in our society is to treat them all with equal respect. To practice justice is to put right the wrongs of discrimination, prejudice, and privilege and to work for real equality, real brotherhood/sisterhood in the church and society." and that "Inequality permeates not only the structures of our society and our church but also the very structures of our thinking."

Turning then to the death penalty.

In the constitutional negotiations leading up to the adoption of South Africa's interim constitution the issue of the death penalty could not be agreed upon. A "Solomonic solution" was accordingly adopted in terms of which the death penalty was neither sanctioned nor excluded and it was left to the Constitutional Court to decide on its constitutionality.

On 6 June 1995, just over a year after our first democratic elections on 27 April 1994 and five years after the release of Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990, our Constitutional Court decided in S v Makwanyane and M. Mchunu, that all legislation sanctioning capital punishment in any part of the the national territory are declared to be inconsistent with the Constitution and accordingly to be invalid.

In arriving at this conclusion the Constitutional Court considered all the different rights and provisions contained in the Constitution. I wish to highlight just a few aspects of this comprehensive and well-reasoned decision:

The former Chief Justice of South Africa, Mr. Justice Arthur Chaskalson, who was President of the Constitutional Court at the time said: The rights to life and dignity are the most important of all human rights, and the source of all other personal rights... . By committing ourselves to a society founded on the recognition of human rights we are required to value these two rights above all others. And this must be demonstrated by the State in everything that it does, including the way it punishes criminals. This is not achieved by objectifying murders and putting them to death to serve as an example to others in the expectation that they might possibly be deterred thereby."

Mr. Justice Pius Langa who succeeded Judge Chaskalson as Chief Justice said: "The emphasis I place on the right to life is, in part, influenced by the recent experiences of our people in this country. The history of the past decades has been such that the value of life and human dignity have been demeaned. Political, social and other factors created a climate of violence resulting in a culture of retaliation and vengeance. In the process, respect for life and the inherent dignity of every person became the main casualties. The State has been part of this degeneration, not only because of its role in the conflicts of the past, but also by retaining punishments which did not testify to a high regard for the dignity of the person and the value of every human life."

Regarding the concept of ubuntu, often described as African humanism, and epitomised by the sayings that, "I am a person through other people", or, "I am because you are", Judge Langa said: "It is a culture which places some emphasis on community and on the interdependence of the members of a community. It recognizes a person's status as a human being, entitled to unconditional respect, dignity, value and acceptance from the members of the community such person happens to be part of. It also entails the converse, however. The person has a corresponding duty to give the same respect, dignity, value and acceptance to each member of that community. More importantly, it regulates the exercise of rights by the emphasis it lays on sharing and co-responsibility and the mutual enjoyment of rights by all."  

He goes on to point out that, "an outstanding feature of ubuntu in a community sense is the value it puts on life and human dignity. The dominant theme of the culture is that the life of another person is at least as valuable as one's own."

The challenge that faces us is to intensify the campaign against the death penalty world wide. As we do so in the conviction that the can be no justice without life, we must also campaign for justice in the conviction that life can only be full and complete in conditions of social justice.

In order to achieve this we must ensure that we implement the Millennium Development Goals and that we reform institutions of global governance to reflect the need for a just world order.

In conclusion, let me then return to my friend, the Professor of Architecture, and the work of Antoni Gaudi. 

This morning I had the privilege of visiting the Temple of the Sagrada Familia. I was struck by the following quote by Gaudi: "La pobresa porta a l"elegancia i a la bellesa." (Poverty brings elegance and beauty.)  I believe that Gaudi was not romanticising poverty, but rather exhorting us to defeat the obsessive pursuit of individual material wealth by the few that disfigures, makes ugly and unjust our world by impoverishing the many.

I was very generously given a beautiful little guide to the temple which concludes with the following words: "The Temple is financed, as it always has been, thanks to the donations from people all over the world, who thus take part in the project and help make this great architectural work a reality, a catholic church in Barcelona that, based on Jesus' proposal for life, is a beseeching for a full and authentic life, for the openness, dialogue and brotherhood between men and women from all cultures and credos."

These words speak directly to the theme of this International Meeting for Peace being held under the theme, "Family of Peoples, Family of God."

They also echo our deeply held conviction that, by working together we can do more to achieve a better life for all, to build a better South Africa in a better Africa, a better Africa in a better World; and that the basis for working together is unity in our diversity.

I thank you.