South Africa’s approach to reintegrating criminals and managing crime is a catastrophic failure

Crime is destined to remain one of our most pressing social problems in South Africa if the stigmatisation of criminals is not addressed.

South Africa has one of the highest and most unsustainable rates of recidivism (reoffence) in the world.

First-time offenders, especially, are desperate to rejoin mainstream society. Government is failing in its responsibility to help reintegrate this marginalized group which would mean a safer South Africa for all.

The facts point to the obvious: South Africa’s approach to punishing criminal offenders is a catastrophic failure. Between 86% and 94% of convicted criminals reoffend (also called recidivism) after leaving prison, meaning the prevalent pattern of criminal behaviour persists.

According to Dr Casper Lӧtter, a conflict criminologist at North-West University (NWU), the solution to this problem, which is severely impacting our society, lies in eliminating the stigma associated with criminals. This can be achieved by adopting China’s highly successful integrative shaming approach that emphasises rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-offenders into society without stigma. Another very successful model for reducing recidivism, perhaps even more plausible than the Chinese template, is that of Finland which despite having a stigmatizing culture, is heavily invested in integrative shaming measures such as employment opportunities and accommodation to prevent reoffending.

But, before we examine the solution, let us explore the problem.

“Stigma, which is very present in South Africa’s harsh stigmatising shaming culture, is the single most important factor driving reoffending, and unsurprisingly our country has one of the highest and most unsustainable rates of recidivism in the world. Government has a responsibility to address this source of conflict, which is manageable. With incarceration as our dominant sentencing regime, coupled with a stigma paradigm, crime is destined to remain one of South Africa’s most pressing social problems,” says Dr Lӧtter.

Without public buy-in, the reintegration of ex-criminal offenders into communities they return to, will be futile.

“Communities play a vital role in ensuring successful reintegration. In fact, the evidence suggests that offenders, especially first-time offenders, are desperate to rejoin mainstream society. The impressive results from integrative shaming

cultures like those that can be found in China, Japan and many other African countries in curbing reoffending - as opposed to our unsustainable rates in a stigmatizing shaming culture, such as South Africa - speaks volumes. It is important that we shift our attention away from emphasising the responsibility of the offender to consider how government’s uncritically conceived criminalization and marginalization practices, such as inequality and the stigmatisation of ex-offenders, create breeding grounds for crime.”

He further asserts that an overemphasis on punishment, rather than addressing the underlying issues that lead convicts into a life of crime, is a flawed approach.

“Many young people coming from traumatised homes or backgrounds end up in prison, having committed crimes because of the unresolved trauma in their lives. Unemployment and homelessness on the Cape Flats, for example, go hand in hand with neglect and abuse. I have no doubt that in those cases, punishment in the classical sense of the word is the wrong approach and that a trauma-infused approach is certainly more advisable. In a society characterised by high levels of income and ownership inequality - and South Africa certainly fits this description - rehabilitation has become a comforting myth as these ex-offenders have nothing to rehabilitate to. The answer lies, in part, in addressing these macro-economic factors which set the stage for crime.”

Dr Lӧtter is of the opinion that the solution to South Africa’s reoffending problem can be found partially in the East: “China is one of several countries which apply an integrative shaming approach in the management of crime. This means that every effort is made to reintegrate ex-offenders into mainstream culture after their release from prison, with jobs and accommodation being non-negotiable. To me, the most important aspect regarding the Chinese management of crime, as well as other societies prioritising integration, is the absence of stigma in these societies.” But this model is unfortunately not entirely suitable for South Africa because of our harsh stigmatizing shaming culture. Finland, as mentioned above, with its hybrid culture, might be more aligned with practical solutions on the ground.

Without urgent intervention, this cycle of devastation will show no signs of abating and South Africa will continue to suffer at the hands of reoffending criminals.

“South Africans will also suffer because of an inept government unable to see the forest for the trees.Given that incarceration serves as our dominant sentencing regime coupled with a stigma paradigm, crime is destined to remain one of our most pressing social problems. It is urgent that we move away from this paradigm to embrace community-based penalties, such as community

service where applicable. Incarceration within a stigmatizing shaming culture is a huge problem. Evidence suggests that offenders who are not sent to prison to ‘pay for their crimes’, but instead sentenced to community service, are less likely to reoffend. This approach addresses one aspect of this multifaceted problem,” he argues.

“Finally, the prison, as a despised European invention employed to control the natives in colonial spaces, has been questioned and subsequently outlawed in a number of African countries and it is perhaps high time for us to do the same in South Africa,” Dr Lӧtter concludes.


Dr Casper Lӧtter with Prof Dumisani Moyo, executive dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the NWU.

Submitted on Wed, 02/21/2024 - 11:06