WJP welcomes visiting African experts in transitional justice

The Wits Justice Project (WJP) team was excited to host a group of African experts in transitional justice yesterday.

IJR Fellows at WJP (26)

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) hosts an annual fellowship programme in transitional justice aimed at exposing mid-career professionals working on justice and reconciliation issues in their home countries, to transitional justice theory and practice.

The group – of 9 men and women from South Sudan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, DRC, Burundi and South Africa – spent part of the afternoon on 5 August at the WJP offices at Wits University. They received an historical overview of prisons in South Africa, as well as a briefing on the challenges facing the criminal justice system in the country.

IJR Fellows at WJP (40)

As a democratic state South Africa has only just turned 21 and its achievements and remaining challenges should be viewed in that perspective. Although most of the problems of the criminal justice system are not unique to the country, the burdens of the past add an extra dimension of complexity to the issues.

Some of the issues covered in the presentation include:

  • Incarceration as punishment began in South Africa began after the abolition of slavery in 1834 (Institute of Security Studies, 1998), and the resultant decline in the supply of labour to farms. A penal system was devised to put convicts to work, both in public projects as well as on mines and farms. This practice continued even through to the depression in the 1930s, when prison labour was made available to farmers at a very low cost.
  • In 1959, in line with the state’s institutionalised racism – apartheid – new prison legislation was promulgated which entrenched the racial segregation of prisons. Furthermore, the new legislation reinforced the military culture of prison management. “Although staff members were defined as civil servants”, explains the Institute of Security Studies, “their status was that of paramilitary personnel. In addition, all prisons became closed intuitions: all media and outside inspections were prohibited”.
  • After the increasingly vehement anti-apartheid protests in the early 1960s, the incarceration of political detainees and sentenced prisoners became a characteristic of South African prisons (Singh, 2005). Among these political prisoners were the leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle, including the country’s most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela. His plight, and that of other high-profile detainees, helped to galvanise global support for the anti-apartheid struggle, and raised concern about prison conditions among international organizations such as Amnesty International, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
  • After the release of Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s, and in the lead-up to the first democratic elections in 1994, moves were made to transform the prison system. This included changing the name of the responsible agency from the Department of Prisons to the Department of Correctional Services, signalling a shift of focus towards becoming an “institution that was transparent and accountable.
  • With the adoption of the new Constitution in 1996, the rights of detainees were clearly defined and enshrined. This includes, in section 35(2)(e):

Everyone who is detained, including every sentenced prisoner, has the right to conditions of detention that are consistent with human dignity, including at least exercise and the provision, at state expense, of adequate accommodation, nutrition, reading material and medical treatment.

 …the transformation of the correctional system, from its pre-democratic emphasis on retributive justice and the “warehousing” of detainees to its new democratic focus on restorative justice directed at rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders, is no simple task. It is in fact complex and onerous ….

  • The fact that, in addition to the prison system, both the police and the judiciary were also used as tools of an oppressive regime for decades means that Judge Van Zyl’s explanation can be applied to the whole of the criminal justice continuum. It also means that any meaningful reform and remedy must take stock of the entire system in order to be effective.

IJR Fellows at WJP (33)


About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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