Final Word

On parole your word is your word – or is it?


 The parole granted to last week by the High Court to Janusz Waluś was all about who should have the last word on such matters – whose word should be the final word?

At stake was whether Waluś, who murdered the Communist Party’s secretary general, Chris Hani, in 1989, should be released on parole – on the recommendation, or ‘word’, of the Parole Board or of the minister, subject to other considerations.

The essence of the judgement by the Gauteng North High Court, on an appeal against a decision by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Michael Masutha, was that the ‘word’ of the Parole Board should be upheld – and not that of the family of the victim.

Origin of the term

The origin of the word ‘parole’ is the Latin word parabola or paraula, in Vulgar Latin, meaning “speech or discourse”.

In the period 1610-20 the term parole d'honneur (‘word of honour’) developed in Middle French, which got shortened to just parole, and also meant ‘voice’ or ‘spoken words’.

During the Middle Ages the term, according to most sources we could find, became associated with the release of prisoners, often prisoners of war, who “gave their word” regarding their future behaviour.

Arrival in English

Different accounts of how and when the term arrived in English are given by the various sources we could track down.

According to it arrived in English in 1716 as meaning a ‘pledge’ given by a prisoner and “its transitive meaning ‘put on parole’ is first attested 1782”.

What seems pretty sure is that the man who put the modern practice of ‘paroling’ on the map, so to speak, and in the process just about set a whole new nation, Australia, free, was a Scottish geographer and captain in the Royal Navy, Alexander Maconochie.

Maconochie became regarded as a great reformer of the penal system after he was appointed as superintendent of the British penal colonies in Norfolk Island, Australia (also known as “Devil’s Island”), in 1840.

It earned him the title of ‘father of parole’.

He developed a plan, involving three grades, to prepare prisoners for their eventual return to society. The first two consisted of promotions earned through good behaviour, labour and study. The third grade involved conditional liberty outside of prison, while obeying strict rules. A violation would see a return to prison and a starting all over again through the ranks of the three-grade process.

Parole not a pardon

It is important to remember that parole is not a pardon for the original crime or a wiping out of the original sentence. Neither is it amnesty or commutation of the original sentence.

Parolees are still considered to be serving their sentences, and may be returned to prison if they violate the conditions of their parole.

In short, they are expected not to go back on their word, which typically includes the signing of a formal pledge – like the one Pan Africanist Congress of Azania cadre Kenny Motsamai refused to sign about two years ago.

There are various grounds for parole, which include medical parole or compassionate release, the release of prisoners on medical or humanitarian grounds.

If a prisoner has been released because he is terminally ill, but some years later is still regularly playing full rounds of golf – as is the case with a former adviser of President Jacob Zuma – the question could rightfully be posed: Is the ‘word’ of his parole in letter and spirit really based on the truth?


by Piet Coetzer

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