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‘At the heart of the matter’: A comparative analysis of youth justice transformation between New Zealand and South Africa

Ashley Fritha Shearar


During the mid-1980s, Māori families challenged New Zealand’s social welfare system, reclaiming their right to be involved in decisions about their children. Around the same time, parents and community groups protested the detention of hundreds of children in South Africa during the Apartheid era. These experiences helped shape both countries’ youth justice systems, which reflect restorative justice principles and international standards for children’s rights.

The research reported here is the first in-depth comparative analysis to compare New Zealand and South Africa’s journeys to alter their youth justice systems. It asks the following key questions:  

* What were the key conceptual influences that shaped youth justice transformation in New Zealand and South Africa?  

* What do both countries’ experiences of youth justice transformation reveal about the role of individuals, advocacy coalitions, and international influences in shaping policy and practice?

Using a phenomenological research approach, key role players from both countries were interviewed. These interviews discovered that social entrepreneurial factors gave direction to policy outcomes. All participants described their commitment to changing the status quo following their exposure to the inhumane conditions experienced by children and young people in conflict with the law. This prompted them to promote policies that diverted children from the justice system and prevented re-offending while still holding children to account for their behaviour and encouraging them to repair the harm. The participants explained their motivation to find policy solutions that empowered children, families, and victims. In both countries, social entrepreneurs resisted opposition and joined forces to develop convincing arguments for their position. This research confirmed the advantages of government support to advance social entrepreneurial ventures.

Policy transfer was also found to play a role in the change processes in both countries. This study identifies how both New Zealand and South Africa have lent their policies internationally to contribute to practical youth justice changes in countries seeking to adhere to international standards and to incorporate restorative justice principles. Significant contributions include New Zealand’s family group conference, which has inspired several x jurisdictions, as well as South Africa’s diversion programmes, which have particularly benefitted other African countries.


Oceania - New Zealand

Year Language

2013 English

Category Type

Publications Thesis


Child, Detention, Human Rights, Race, Racism, Social, Welfare


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  • International Juvenile Justice Observatory (IJJO). Belgian Public Utility Foundation

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  • Head Office: Rue Armand Campenhout, nº 72 bte 10. 1050. Brussels. Belgium

    Phone: 00 32 262 988 90. Fax: 00 32 262 988 99. oijj@oijj.org

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