Correctional Services Minister Sibusiso Ndebele has called upon religious leaders to play a more active role to heal victims of crime and rehabilitate offenders.
As part of finding solutions to South Africa’s high rate of imprisonment, and breaking the cycle of crime, the Minister addressed more than 1,200 religious leaders and officials at the East London Correctional Centre on Friday, 26 July 2013.
Minister Ndebele re-iterated that corrections is a societal responsibility. “We call upon religious leaders to play a more active role in our concerted efforts to heal victims of crime, and rehabilitate offenders so that they return to society as better human beings. Corrections is not the sole responsibility of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS). ‘Corrections is a Societal Responsibility’. President Nelson Mandela reminded us that offenders are ‘part of our society’s problem and rejecting them is not going to solve the problem of crime.’
“We are well aware of the critical role that all faith communities – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others – here at home, and abroad, play in ensuring that offenders are afforded a second chance. The Lord’s Prayer, in the Bible, says that we should ask for forgiveness, and also forgive those who trespass against us.
“As government, we will not win the battle against crime and reoffending if victims of crime, and the religious community, are not at the centre of the the justice system. The religious community can encourage moral regeneration coupled with basic values and cultures; be more prominent with its role in rehabilitation; play a major role in the reintegration of ex-offenders into society; and provide social, and economic, assistance to families of those behind bars, and, as far as possible, survivors of victims of crime – when breadwinners are incarcerated or have been murdered, their loved ones are vulnerable to economic and other forms of crime.
“We cannot allow a situation where the poor are being punished because of their lack of money. James Smalberger, Chief Deputy Commissioner: Incarceration and Corrections, during his visit to the Worcester Female Correctional Centre on 23 July 2013, learnt about a 20-year-old female sentenced for 30 days imprisonment, or a fine of R300, on a charge of contempt of court – because she doesn’t have the money, she must serve her sentence. Where is the church? We cannot allow a situation that breeds criminality whilst the church is in every community.
“We all have a duty to play in the eradication poverty. We MUST perform charitable deeds as Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and indigenous cultures dictate. As Madiba eloquently captures it, ‘Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.’
“Research shows that there tends to be a correlation between lack of education, poverty and crime. In Cuba, Fidel Castro captures this phenomenon when he responds to the question of Cuba’s prisons being populated by Black inmates who live in impoverished barrios: ‘We have found that there is an inverse relation between knowledge, culture, and crime; for example, the greater the knowledge, culture and access to university, the less the crime…You’d be amazed if you saw how many young people between twenty and thirty years are in prison, where, despite the enormous number of professionals and intellectuals in this country, only two percent of those in prison are the children of professionals and intellectuals.’
“Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace. DCS has made education compulsory for offenders, in order to reduce the prospects of re-offending. An offender must leave a correctional facility with a skill in one hand, and a certificate in the other hand. The hand that previously held an okapi, to harm others, must be transformed into a hand of a tailor, carpenter, builder and writer. We are, indeed, humbled to see offenders taking pride, and working hard, at renovating schools, building homes for the indigent, farming and sharing their produce with less fortunate families and children. Such stories are countless, and, together with the religious fraternity, we can still achieve more.
“DCS is implementing a programme known as ‘Reading for Redemption’. The campaign encourages offenders to read extensively. We urge you, as our valued social partners, to help build our facilities’ libraries by donating books. It was through books that Malcolm X, who had sunk to the very bottom of American society, began to re-evaluate his experiences.
“The strength of our nation derives from the integrity of the home. Let us pray hard for the rebirth of the family institution, especially the African family, which has continued to disintegrate over decades. We know that in order to put our nation in order, ‘we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.’
“In the Bible, in Hebrews 13, it is said, ‘Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners.’ We learnt from Madiba too that ‘[we] will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than [we] will through acts of retribution.’ Mahatma Ghandi also cautioned us that, ‘an eye for an eye, ends up making the world blind.’
“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. Missing an opportunity to visit offenders could mean missing an appointment with a future Apostle Paul, a Dorothy Nyembe, a Steve Biko, a Robert Sobukwe, a Nelson Mandela, a Chief Albert Luthuli, a Mahatma Ghandi, a Malcolm X. It was partly because of their religious convictions that men like Gandhi, Sobukwe and Mandela came out of prison unscathed, and saintly, although they admit that they were never saints.
“You may have read about our Victim-Offender Dialogue (VOD) programme, when the Worcester bomber met families of the deceased. There are many more encouraging stories happening through this Afro-centric approach to restorative justice. As DCS, we are putting victims of crime at the core of the justice system. We say their pain, injury and hurt does not go away when the sentencing of offenders begins. This carefully managed process, whose participation is voluntary, allows willing victims of crime to interact, and engage, with those who wronged them. The offender has the opportunity to say sorry to the victim, but the victim has no moral obligation to accept the apology.
“DCS is encouraging offenders to reflect on their experiences, and to write down their stories. This year, DCS published a collection of poetry entitled ‘Unchained’. Bridgette Nxele in her poem, ‘A Rehabilitated Woman With Hope,’ writes: ‘When I walk out of these doors; I will be a light pruned by prison bars; You will hear my dreams of change; My hands will transform life with touch of change.’
“I have no doubt in my mind that the religious community is best positioned to play a decisive role in setting right the hearts, minds, and souls of South Africans. As long as we do not make moral regeneration a central theme of our conduct, we will find ourselves having progressed one step forward, and regressed ten steps backward.