FORMER HEARTLINES PATRON, REV DR MVUME DANDALA, LOOKS AT THE ROLE SECOND CHANCES PLAYS in the rehabilitation of first-time offenders as South Africans engage in a public national conversation on positive values.
I come from a religious tradition that sees great value in giving people a second chance. It also has faith in the noble human capacity of those who are granted a second chance, to appreciate its value to the extent of remaining on the straight and narrow. Having said that, I am nevertheless firmly of the opinion that society needs to be held accountable for wasting second chances they have been given.
There will always be exceptions, let us not be so naïve as not to recognise that in some instances human nature even tends to view mercy as a weakness and therefore it can be open to abuse.
In Hong Kong there is church/government programme for young offenders called Operation Phoenix. If juveniles are caught committing petty crimes they are not sent to prison, but are given the option of enrolling in a certified rehabilitation programme for 12 months. If at the end of the time, they are deemed fit to return to society, all charges are dropped and they are given a clean record.
A similar programme that has also proved to be highly effective is available for adults who, having been sentenced in court, are given the choice of enrolling in a structured rehabilitation programme for a period of two years. Dependent of course on good behaviour at the end of the period – any criminal record is expunged. Instead of being written off by society, given this opportunity, these people are reintegrated into society with a new determination to make the best of their second chance and, free of any criminal label.
This process is reminiscent of the ritual of “ukugesa” or cleansing that that takes place in most African cultures. Having served time in prison, for anti-social behaviour, the incumbent is not automatically received back into the community, but is required to partake in a process culminating in a cleansing ceremony.
This ritual serves as a reminder that while he or she is welcomed back, such anti-social behaviour is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. It is a significant psycho/social process that allows such persons to be accommodated back into civil society and at the same time to appreciate the values that guide the community and that are expected of them.
Ignorance immediately labels such practises as magic or witchcraft instead of recognising it as a highly acceptable means of dealing with the inner core of the human psyche that more often than not responds positively to mercy.
In a society like ours where our prisons are overcrowded with dangerous criminals who deserve to serve their sentences, we must find ways by which Government structures can work closely with society. This – for many – will mean coming to terms with and understanding the significance of tradition in the lives of our people and, the pride with which they are owned. For others it calls for their religious communities to be more pro-active in designing social programmes that will assist in promoting opportunities for rehabilitation.
The integration of these practices will ensure that second chances are not given in a vacuum, but in a controlled environment were there is accountability.
– Rev Mvume H Dandala is former General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches, former Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, and is the recipient of the Presidential Order of the Baobab (Silver) for his peace-making role in South Africa.