What South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission taught me about Restorative Justice.

Published: Friday, September 17th, 2021

This is a blog by Why me?’s new trustee Gillian Slovo.


Headshot of Trustee Gillian SlovoI’m delighted to be joining the board of trustees of Why me?: it gives me the chance to add my voice to the growing understanding of the benefits of Restorative Justice. 

The notion of a more holistic kind of justice was not even on my radar until I stumbled onto it when I was about to attend a hearing of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the TRC). 

I am South African, born of parents who were opponents of the apartheid state. Our family came to England, when I was young, but my parents continued as prominent activists. In 1982 my mother, Ruth First, who had been teaching at the university in Mozambique, was killed by a letter bomb. We knew why the bomb had been sent to her: the South African state was then intent on annihilating its enemies and particularly those like my mother who spoke out against apartheid. But what we never thought we’d know was the identities of the men who had primed that bomb and posted it to her. 

And then came the political settlement in South Africa and with it the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This Commission held victims’ hearings that bore witness to what so many had suffered under apartheid, and it also held amnesty hearings where people who told of their political crimes, and who told the whole truth about them, would be given amnesty from prosecution for those crimes. Two men who had been involved in the murder of my mother applied– and thus I went to South Africa to experience first-hand this experiment in a flawed version of Restorative Justice.  

Amnesty was offered for truth and yet the truth is a slippery thing and I did not believe what those men said. I watched a bomb maker saying that his superior had ordered him to make a bomb, and I watched his superior justifying his part by saying someone had told him to do it, and that this was a war and that people were after him. It was awful to occupy the same space as these murderers and know they were likely to go unpunished. And, yet, something happened to me I hadn’t expected. It didn’t happen then: in fact it didn’t happen for a good six months. But gradually it dawned on me that I was feeling better. The experience of being at the hearing had brought relief and I began to understand that this was because being at the hearing had answered a question I hadn’t even realised I was asking. Which in my case was not why me but perhaps a more simple why?

One of the TRC slogans – “the truth will set you free” – now resonated. Because I did uncover a truth, even if that truth was only that those two men were motivated by cruelty, by hatred, by a lack of respect for human life, and by the fact that they operated in a system that gave license to their murderous impulses. Just knowing this, truly knowing it, as a result of having seen them and heard what they had to say, has brought a calm I hadn’t previously felt.    

I had discovered how a kind of “knowing” that comes not from a court of law but from encountering the perpetrator, can change things. I began to understand the value of Restorative Justice no matter how imperfect the South African experiment was (and it certainly was imperfect). I began to notice how these same concepts were being explored in a more effective victim-centred fashion elsewhere. I could see how what had helped me could help others and how the steps that lead to a victim’s settling might also contain a hope that a perpetrator could one day understand what they had done. Restorative Justice is a victim centred process. It is voluntary. It does not allow people who committed heinous crimes to escape punishment. So many of these principles were violated by the South African experiment because it was a political solution not an exercise in justice. In twenty-first century  Britain more people across the country are getting access to properly facilitated Restorative Justice and it is transforming their recovery. But so many more victims of crime are never getting this opportunity. I want to help Why me? to change this.

I’m a novelist and a playwright whose work often examines social injustice. What I relish about chairing the board of Why Me? is to help change the manner in which our society and our justice system deals with victims and perhaps also brings perpetrators to  understand the harm that they have done.   

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