Victim Offender Conferencing Pilot Project: South Africa
Restorative justice is not a new philosophy in South Africa. The traditional concept of ubuntu provides a foundation for mutual respect to lead to conflict resolution and healing. During apartheid, many communities developed their own dispute resolution mechanisms to deal with crime and other conflict in their communities as a response lack of justice from the State system. From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the creation of alternative justice mechanisms in the transition phase of government, restorative justice has become a facet of justice in South Africa. The Victim Offender Conferencing pilot project sought to build on these restorative justice experiences. Conceived as a community based means for dealing with crime, the project aimed to formulate a restorative model more familiar to African customary values and to empower communities to work in partnership with the formal criminal justice system.
Although the conceived as a community based initiative, the VOC was also intended as a diversionary process to relieve the justice system of some of its load. It therefore sought to work in close cooperation with the police and justice sectors, primarily those officials based at the magistrate’s courts.
The project was established in three areas within Gauteng, South Africa: West Rand, and Alexandra township. The project partnered with three community-based organisations operating in each of the three areas, each of which had experience in dealing with the criminal justice system, and some experience of community based mediation or conflict resolution. These organisations were Conquest for Life in Westbury, and West Rand Justice Centre, which had offices in Roodepoort, but had outreach programmes in various areas including Dobsonville in the West Rand. The third organisation was the Alexandra Community Law Clinic. The VOC project was conceptualized by a Steering Committee that also bore overall responsibility for its implementation. The Steering Committee comprised of Wilgerspruit Fellowship Centre (WFC), Community Dispute Resolution Trust (CDRT), and Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) as well as the three partner organisations. A project manager was appointed to take responsibility for the management of the project.
Cases were referred to the VOC project by the courts, police and community-based organisations over a 12-month period. Rather than targeting young offenders exclusively, the VOC project was open to all age groups and types of offenders.
The VOC project aimed to allow victims to express their needs and feelings, and to create an environment for the offender to begin to understand the consequences of his or her actions. This approach allows for the facts and emotions of the dispute or offence to be dealt with in a safe environment. It aims to encourage the parties to move towards reconciliation, redress and restitution through both parties reaching an agreement.
The principles underpinning VOC were:
- Acknowledging the injustice – The offender needs to acknowledge responsibility for the offence. The offender has to confront the consequences of his or her action, and see the victim as a person with real feelings and needs. Without this there can be little progress in resolving or reconciling the hurt and damage that has occurred.
- Restoring the inequity – This involves a delicate process of leveling the power imbalances that exist between the offender and victim as a result of the offence or the nature of the relationship between the parties. It provides a forum where victims and their families are given time to speak and be heard by the offender. They are given the opportunity to express their needs and concerns.
- Addressing the future –This is the process of developing an appropriate and concrete plan of action accepted by all parties involved. The plan should address symbolic as well as material needs of the victims and must sufficiently spell out the future intentions of the offending parties in order to ensure that revenge or retaliation is not embarked upon (Stauffer, 1999).
Volunteer mediators were appointed at each site, and received training on restorative justice and victim offender conferencing.
At the Victim Offender Conference, mediators encouraged parties to arrive at an agreement that was usually reduced to writing and signed by both parties and the mediator. The agreement would then be forwarded to whatever agency had referred the case to VOC, such as the court, police, or welfare agency. In certain sites, the court was asked to postpone the trial for a defined period in order to allow the parties to carry out the terms of the agreement. The sites monitored the agreement, and assisted the victim to withdraw charges against the offender if all the conditions in the agreement had been fulfilled. The offender was required to be present in court when the matter was withdrawn. For instance, in the Newlands Magistrate’s court, the Magistrate would read out the agreement and ascertain the offender’s commitment to it. She would warn the offender of the consequences of non-compliance, and would also warn him/her that stricter action would be taken against him/her should he/she commit the same offence again. Sometimes the magistrate elaborated on the agreement, for instance by warning the offender to keep away from the victim. An agreement reached through the mediation process was not always a guarantee that the case would be withdrawn from the court role.
The Evaluation reports of the Victim Offender Conferencing Project may be found at:
Dissel, Amanda. 2002. Restoring the Harmony: Piloting Victim Offender Conferencing in South Africa. Paper presented to the Effective Restorative Justice Conference, De Montfort University, Leicester. 20-21 March.