Zimbabwe’s last hangman — some say he was of Malawian origin while others say he was a former Zambian police officer — retired after carrying out his last job on the two notorious murderers, Admore Edward Edmund Masendeke and Stephen Chidhumo over 10 years ago.
At the time of his departure, the executioner was said to be struggling with his conscience. The man was reported to be always extremely remorseful about his job.
His workplace was inside Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison and the gallows, built long before independence, are said to be made of scaffolding and wood.
Work for the hangman has no routine. One day he would execute between two and four prisoners at dawn then go for months before other hangings are carried out.
A brief look at the qualification requirements for the eccentric job of killing people will tell you the profession, if one would call it such, demands a few but curious skills.
The job requires basic education, perhaps anything above Grade 7 — but a bit more training seems in order since execution by hanging involves knowledge of ropes, knots, basic mechanics, body weight and general human physiology.
The hangman’s job is reserved only for men. According to experts, the job demands strength and unwavering focus. It is not for the faint-hearted. A hangman cannot have second thoughts just before he pulls the lever.
If a hangman is found, jail officials will teach him how to tie the noose and train him to maintain the correct posture while executing as this is vital. But it appears the toughest part of the job is not about ropes and levers. It is about conscience.
“A hangman should never have second thoughts, if he does he should be retired,” a former principal prison officer said.
The most evil aspect of the death penalty is the painful reality of one “dying” several times over before they actually die.
Last week 14 prisoners that have been sentenced to death, challenged the legality of their pending executions, citing the fact that the present legal framework does not allow anyone to be hanged and also on the grounds that their lengthy stay in prison awaiting the noose was punishment enough to warrant commuting the death sentence to life imprisonment.
There are 117 people waiting to be killed by hanging in Zimbabwe at the present moment and no one has been hanged since Masendeke and Chidhumo were hanged in 2005.
The condemned prisoners’ constitutional argument appears to hold a lot of water on the grounds that Zimbabwe does not have an Act of Parliament stipulating how capital punishment may be implemented in terms of the new constitution.
In other words, the law that is expected to permit the death penalty in the new constitution has not yet been passed by Parliament — Therefore, it will be unlawful to punish anybody by killing them or to put anybody on death row under the present laws of the country.
The other argument that some of the prisoners have waited to be killed for up to 20 years and, therefore, feel they have taken part of the death penalty already, also sounds reasonable.
Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who himself experienced life on death row, has publicly condemned the practice of revenging death by death and has openly vowed he will never, as Justice minister — which he still is — sign the death warrants as is required by law before anybody can be hanged.
Yes, condemned murderers have taken innocent lives, often brutally, senselessly, callously and without any justification whatsoever and therefore, would seem to deserve no mercy. However, a relook at the meaning of deliberate, sober and conscious decision to avenge death by death and the conditions that the condemned must face the so-called justice should give us second thoughts.
The prisoners must sit in the solitary confinement of their cells for years, waking up every morning and expecting to be dragged to the gallows. In my view, a human being does not deserve to be subjected to this mental torture on a daily basis for over 20 years — it does not matter that they committed the most heinous crime of taking another person’s life.
This is why I agree with agitations from various quarters for the abolition of capital punishment for the many humane reasons proffered. I find it reasonable that while this battle for and against the death sentence continues, society must have a position on the fate of those awaiting the noose.
The absence of an executioner is a mixed blessing for the condemned but it is also an agonising and indefinite wait on death row in a jail dubbed a “gulag” because of its inhumane conditions.
Chikurubi maximum Security prison is notorious for its grimy, icy and overcrowded cells infested with lice, maggots and rats.
An inmate on death row, Shepherd Mazango, made an emotional plea to the Supreme Court in 2010 in his appeal against his death sentence.
He wrote in his court deposition on March 30 2010: “God knows when I am going to be executed. I am anxious about this every day.”
“The very thought that I am dying steals all my hope for the future, makes me restless and the delay traumatises me. It causes me emotional and psychological trauma. Worse still, to think that I can spend 13 years before execution, like my colleague George Manyonga, crushes me.”
Several prisoners on death row have had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment after the Supreme Court ruled it inhumane to delay their execution.
Justice minister, Mnangagwa echoed the same sentiments, saying death row was a harrowing experience.
“My views on the death penalty are, to a large extent, informed by the harrowing experiences I went through while on death row, the sanctity of life and the need to rehabilitate offenders,” Mnangagwa said, referring to the pre-independence horrors he experienced while on death row, from which he was saved by an age technicality.
Apparently, Mnangagwa has gained some ground and, by his word, Cabinet is now divided over the issue.
Former High Court judge Justice Simpson Mutambanengwe, who has in his career sentenced convicts to death, has also come out clear about what he thinks about the death penalty.
He wishes it were abolished and says many judges feel the same, but are forced by law to sentence convicts to death. He said judges go to great length to find extenuating circumstances in a bid to avoid reaching the capital sentence verdict.
“We take an oath to do justice according to the law. As a judge, you do the best you can with the evidence given to you and some judges strain to find the extenuating circumstances just to evade the death penalty,” said Mutambanengwe.
Jenni Williams, the director of rights group Women of Zimbabwe Arise, aptly said only God had the right to take life.
“Who are we to hold power over life and death? Who are we to play God? That is God’s place and no one else’s,” said Williams.