Yanking those chains

Monday, 15 March 1999

HUMAN stupidity follows cycles. Every so often, someone does something that is incredibly asinine, usually resulting in devastation and despair for an entire generation. At the end of it, the world picks herself up, dusts herself off, and swears "never again".

It takes 30 or so years for all of that pain and trauma to be forgotten, and someone ends up looking for a short-term solution to a nagging problem. The conversation that usually follows is along these lines:

He: "Wait a second. Don't you remember back in 172 BC, they tried hammering nails through eyeballs to cure headaches?"

She: "Oh yes, that's right. But they gave up on that because there were some side effects. I forget what ..."

He: "Yes, but they did not have access to the skills and technology that we have now. If we try it now, we will be able to get it right ..."

South Africa, circa 1999 AD: We're wrestling with the problems of crime prevention and prison and punishment and several bright sparks get this Really Great Idea - why not introduce chain gangs?

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(If this was a TV documentary, at this point we'd fade into a black and white vignette of a strapping Errol Flynn stripped to the waist and shuffling along in leg irons with a defiant look in his eye while a sultry Olivia de Havilland pouts prettily in the background with an oh-so-subtle quiver on her lower lip and Sam Cook strums away in the background: You hear them moaning their lives away, Then you hear somebody say, 'That's the sound of the men, Working on the chain-gang.' Sorry. No video. No soundtrack either. On the other hand, at least you know how to read.)

Chain gangs. It seems so simple. These guys - convicted criminals - are the scum of the earth. So, instead of spending hard-won taxpayers money on supporting them, why not put them to work? Better still, let's put them to work in places where people can see that they are really paying their debt to society. Highways! Let's put them to work cleaning up highways!

Highway chain gangs were introduced in the US of A in about 1885. A steel band was clamped on each of the prisoners' ankles and connected by a 20-inch chain. Then a three-foot-long chain was attached to the ankle iron or the connecting chain and hooked on to the prisoner's belt.

They worked 10 to 12 hours a day building roads. At night, 10 or so convicts were kept in steel cages and chained to the bars with just enough room to lie down in their bunks.

The system actually worked at the time for a couple of reasons. One, there weren't any limp-wristed liberals screaming "Human Rights Violations" because you know these guys are not really human. Two, the convicts were never the supposedly violent sort since those were normally summarily executed before trial.

(The probability of predominantly black convicts receiving a fair trial and conviction by predominantly white juries is left as an exercise for the reader, along with the probability that the prison warder did not have a financial stake in the road construction.)

Transplant this scenario to South Africa today. Our hardened criminal is taken chained on to the gentle slopes of Cape Town's De Waal Drive to cut grass under the watchful eyes of resurrected Quaggas.

There is a screech of tires and a phalanx of armed masked thugs pour out of the back of a minivan. Thirty seconds later, the prison guard detail lies bleeding on the slopes as vultures circle overhead. Our hardened criminal meanwhile hops into the front seat of a late-model luxury vehicle and rides off into the distance.

The next day, Marthinus van Schalkwyk calls for a referendum on the death penalty. Tony Leon blames the government. Pagad denies involvement, blaming a third force. And ANC spokespersons issue veiled threats against unnamed elements hoping to make society ungovernable.

Sorry, did I misunderstand? Do we want the army out to stand guard over these chain gangs?