A qualitative exploration of the Reitz reconciliation process as an exercise in restorative justice
In 2008 South Africa and the world were shocked by the public dissemination of the ‘Reitz video.’ The video depicted five black University of the Free State workers re-enacting a number of humiliating residence initiation rituals at the instruction of four white male university students. The video was narrated as a parody of the proposed racial integration of university residences, and it led to a criminal court case followed by civil proceedings and most importantly for the purpose of this study, a restorative justice process titled the Reitz Reconciliation Process. This study explores the Reitz Reconciliation Process through a restorative justice lens, from a social constructionist theoretical standpoint. The aim of the study is to critically engage the meaning that the students and workers assigned to their experiences of this restorative justice process, so as to gain insight into why they did or did not experience the process as restorative. In-depth qualitative interviews were conducted with the students and workers to gather data for this study, and the data was then analysed using a thematic approach. What the researcher found was that in the students’ refusal to accept the wrongfulness of their actions, they persistently emphasised their own victimisation over that of the workers and their offer of apology was plagued by denial. This was all found to be underpinned by an intergenerationally transmitted system of prejudicial beliefs and values that do not align with the values and rights entrenched in the South African Constitution. In contrast, the workers constructed the Reitz Reconciliation Process as an experience of forgiveness, healing and restoration. The researcher found that at the core of their process of meaning construction was the ethic of Ubuntu, which is underpinned by a very similar set of values to those of restorative justice. The complexities and implications of these findings are teased out in this study with the intention of gaining a deeper understanding of the possibilities for restorative justice practice in a contemporary South African context.