South Africa ended 1987 on a somber note, with a series of executions that brought the year's total to 164 - the highest since 1910. But there was perhaps a tiny ray of light: evidence of a possible move toward color-blindness in the courts and on the scaffold.
Among the 164 men hanged were nine whites, including two executed for their role in raping and murdering black women. Their executions may have marked a slight shift away from what is widely seen as racial bias in South Africa's legal order.
In an article written before the execution of the two men for crimes of violence against blacks Prof. John Dugard of the University of the Witwatersrand said: ``Let us be honest enough to admit that the South African system of sentencing is not perfect and, therefore, must inevitably on occasions be guilty of racial bias.''
In his writings, Professor Dugard has identified two areas where there is evidence of bias against blacks: interracial homicides and assaults, and interracial sexual offences. ``No white has yet been hanged for the rape of a black, and only about six whites have been hanged for the murder of blacks,'' he says. While, ``blacks convicted of the murder or rape of whites are usually executed.''
Gilbert Marcus, a colleague of Dugard's, offered a cautious assessment of the significance of the recent hanging of the two whites. ``There is growing consciousness of the necessity to be color-blind in sentencing.''
Prof. Marcus had earlier pointed out that the number of executions are disproportionately higher for blacks than whites. Of the 164 men hanged in 1987, only nine were white. The rest were either black (110) or mixed-race Coloreds (45). Blacks outnumber whites in South Africa 3 to 1. Of the executions in 1987, 21 were hanged in batches of seven on three consecutive days barely two weeks before Christmas. Their deaths drew little press attention: the largest daily paper reported the 21 hangings in three brief sentences.
South Africa has never had an anti-capital punishment movement of any size. And it has been calculated that South Africa is responsible for nearly half the ``official'' executions worldwide each year. In 1981, opposition parliamentarian David Dalling told Parliament that this nation hanged more people for a wider range of crimes than any other Western nation.
The country's attitude toward hanging has been described as ``a conspiracy of silence,'' by the late Prof. Barend Van Niekerk, of the University of Natal. A key reason, he argued, was that most of the victims are members of subordinate castes.
When Helen Suzman, a veteran opposition parliamentarian, introduced a motion in 1969, calling for the appointment of a judicial commission of inquiry into the death penalty, not a single colleague supported it.
Reflecting on 1987's record number of hangings, Mrs. Suzman attributed them to: the rebellion in the black townships (six were hanged for unrest-related crimes in 1987 and another 38 are awaiting execution); and rising unemployment (robbery and breaking and entering with aggravating circumstances are capital crimes here.)
Prisoners now on death row include the ``Sharpeville six,'' five men and a woman who were sentenced to death for their role in the murder of a black town councillor, in the black township of Sharpeville, in September 1984. Their appeal was turned down Nov. 30.
If death row includes people widely seen as political prisoners - as in the case of the Sharpeville Six - the ``conspiracy of silence'' is sometimes broken.
A campaign to save them has begun. Amnesty International, a worldwide human rights organization and several South African groups and individuals such as Suzman are urging President Botha to exercise his prerogative of mercy and stay these executions.
One of the arguments used to back the appeal for clemency is that the killing of the town councillor - he was one of four councillors killed in that area that day - cannot be separated from the general political turmoil that broke out with renewed intensity in the fall of 1984. This turmoil, say many blacks, is a result of the ``violent'' nature of the apartheid system of racial segregation. The councillors, says a defense lawyer's memorandum, were the targets of popular wrath because they were perceived as ``sell outs.''
But, legal observers said, while there are precedents for reprieving political prisoners facing execution, there is no evidence that the State sees the Sharpeville six as more than ordinary murderers. They were charged with murder, not with treason or terrorism.