Why me?’s response to Oscar Pistorius’ upcoming “restorative” process
The once-renowned Paralympian Oscar Pistorius was found guilty of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013, after a trial which was closely followed across the world. He remains in prison in South Africa.
Pistorius has now served half of his sentence, and is up for possible release on parole. However, it was reported today (links at the bottom of the page) that he first must participate in a form of Restorative Justice – by meeting Reeva Steenkamp’s parents,
June and Barry.
South Africa has a history of utilising restorative approaches more widely than we do in the UK, but we have significant concerns about whether these practices are used appropriately. The Chair of our Board of Trustees, South African playwright and novelist Gillian Slovo, wrote about her experience of taking part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa following her mother’s murder. She found that the process violated many important restorative principles, and was angry that the perpetrators were able to escape punishment by taking part in the process.
Why me? are concerned that Oscar Pistorius’ case is another example of an allegedly restorative process violating many of the core principles of Restorative Justice.
Firstly, Oscar Pistorius is required to take part in this restorative dialogue as part of his application for parole. This goes against the core principle of Restorative Justice being voluntary for all parties. Moreover, the fact that this Restorative Justice meeting is happening as part of the parole process is troubling. The outcome of a Restorative Justice intervention should not have a direct impact on parole – especially in such a serious case – and this process may give Pistorius an incentive to feign remorse. This is a fear shared by Reeva’s mother June, who has said that, in her view, Pistorius has “shown no remorse and he would only show remorse, I think, if it contributes to his getting out of jail.”
The most worrying aspect of this process is the seeming lack of concern for Reeva’s parents’ wellbeing. This is demonstrated by the fact that they received a “distressing” letter from Pistorius this month without warning. Barry says that he and June were “dumbfounded” to receive the letter, and that it was like “ripping a band-aid off of a wound”. People harmed by crime should not be given such a letter unexpectedly, and should only receive one if they have expressed an interest in reading it.
Moreover, while June and Barry do not have to take part in a restorative process, the fact that doing so could affect Pistorius’ parole, puts them under pressure to take part. June has stated her belief that “he must serve whatever his full time, in my eyes, he still must pay for what he’s done. And that’s what we’re expecting.” Even if Restorative Justice is not right for them at this time, it is understandable that they may want to take part so that their views on Pistorius’ parole can be heard. Indeed, the Steenkamps’ attorney has stated that June and Barry “are prepared to meet Oscar…but are not emotionally prepared.” Someone taking part in Restorative Justice despite not feeling emotionally ready, is another sign of bad practice. A Restorative Justice process should go ahead if and when the people harmed are ready to take part, not according to the perpetrator or criminal justice system’s timetable.
If used appropriately, we believe that Restorative Justice has the potential to help the parties involved in this case. When the prospect of Restorative Justice was first raised last month, the Steenkamps’ lawyer said that June and Barry “would like to participate in the victim-offender dialogue” and want to do so “face to face.” She adds that Barry “has said for years he wants to meet Oscar and he has questions to ask.” Barry himself said that he would “like to talk to him, [because] we feel there are still a lot of things to come out of this story and we’re hoping that Oscar will tell us the truth.”
But this is not enough to justify a face-to-face meeting going ahead in these circumstances. Have June and Barry’s expectations been appropriately managed? How will they feel if Pistorius does not give them the answers which they want? Can a meeting be truly restorative if Pistorius is mandated to take part?
Why me? have worked in partnership with the Parole Board for England and Wales to produce guidance on the ways in which Restorative Justice can be considered in the parole process. While we of course want Restorative Justice to be more widely available, we are pleased that the approach taken in Pistorius’ case does not happen here. We should learn from countries which place greater emphasis on Restorative Justice, while also ensuring that all restorative processes are victim-led, voluntary, and in line with good practice.
One of the most fundamental principles of Restorative Justice is that the process should “do no further harm”. We are concerned that this process could cause further harm to June and Barry Steenkamp.