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  • In the Shadow of Sharpeville: Apartheid and Criminal Justice
  • Stephan F. Miescher
Parker, Peter and Joyce Mokhesi-Parker. 1998. In the Shadow of Sharpeville: Apartheid and Criminal Justice. New York: New York University Press. 381 pp.

The name of Sharpeville is deeply ingrained in the collective memory of those who participated in the struggle against the South African apartheid state. This black township outside Johannesburg is known for two events: the police massacre of 1960, and the uprising of 1984, followed by the trial of the "Sharpeville Six." What started in September 1984, as a protest over rent increase, quickly escalated to an uprising against the repressive regime. When Councillor Dlamini, the deputy mayor of Sharpeville, opened fire on the protesters, the crowd killed him. Eight people were accused of Dlamini's murder; six of them, five men and one women, were sentenced to death. This book is an analysis and a personal account of the trial and the campaign to save the Sharpeville Six. Both authors were deeply involved in the campaign; Joyce Mokhesi-Parker was the sister of one of the Six. The experience of the campaign, particularly the respect enjoyed by South Africa's courts, was a major impulse for this study. The authors offer a direct critique of the defense's conduct and one of its lawyers' book, The Sharpeville Six (Diar 1990). Unlike this heroic account, they argue that the "kind of justice" encountered by the Six was not exceptional, but "fostered by a legal system which systematically favoured the state, which devised rules that helped turn suspects into convicts, and which moulded the rule of law to serve the role of the legal system in enforcing economic, political and racial oppression" (p. 3). This is a book of the past, providing "a dissection of the legal system" (p. 8); it does not address what happened to this system since 1990.

The book opens with Mokhesi-Parker's recollection of the Sharpeville uprising, followed by a brief history of white rule and black resistance that led to increased protest and state repression in the 1980s. The authors examine apartheid's legal system in which judges claimed to be blind to race but acted differently. The law operated to preserve white rule, creating an authoritarian consensus that intimidated political opponents and justified repression. The discussion reveals the systemic racial bias and provides chilling evidence of how South African courts created an environment in which torture flourished. [End Page 203]

The middle section focuses on the Sharpeville trial. Although the prosecution's case relied on questionable evidence, the defense's response was not very effective. The latter had knowledge of how the police had produced false testimony, but failed to submit this evidence. The authors study the performance of Judge W. J. Human, who was partisan, and shed light on the history of death sentences in South Africa. The Appellate Division upheld the death sentences of the Six. Although Western criminal law has standards of only punishing individuals for their intentional actions, apartheid courts, like other colonial powers, resorted to collective punishment. Evoking the principle of "common purpose," South Africa's highest court ruled that the Six were guilty based on active association, even if it had not been proved "that their conduct contributed causally to the death of the deceased" (p. 194).

In the third section, the narrative tone shifts radically; the experiences of the Sharpeville Six move to the foreground. Mokhesi-Parker presents a moving account about life on death row to which the Six were subjected for over three years. She tells about her brother's suffering, using letters and her memories of visits. As a practicing Catholic, Francis Mokhesi found an anchor in his faith in God. His prayers transformed him; death row became a religious awaking. At the moment of greatest despair, when the Appellate Division upheld the conviction, Francis wrote, "Will you please sister help me pray for them [incarcerators] to be forgiven and I may not remember this sin any more. They'll be pardoned if I pardon them" (p. 239). Like many prison narratives, this section adds human voice to the analysis of oppression, revealing the agony...


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