Sawbonna: A New Dawn in Restorative Justice – Margot Van Sluytman’s Trailblazing Approach

In a riveting presentation that combined heart-wrenching personal narrative with groundbreaking theory, award-winning justice activist Margot Van Sluytman laid out her vision for the future of restorative justice. As someone who began her life’s work as a teenager grappling with the trauma of her father’s violent death, Van Sluytman’s perspective on justice is deeply personal and profoundly informed.

At the heart of her discussion was a puzzling quandary: why, when offered the chance at restorative justice, do so many victims decline? The answer, as Van Sluytman posited, lies in the very framework of how restorative justice is commonly perceived and executed.

Margot shed light on the predominant definitions and practices associated with restorative justice, underscoring how these are employed and by whom. In delving into these nuances, she subtly yet powerfully highlighted the inadequacies and gaps that often leave victims feeling underserved, unheard, or even more traumatized.

Enter Sawbonna, Van Sluytman’s innovative model of restorative justice. Deriving its name from an African word meaning mutual recognition and acknowledgment, Sawbonna challenges and transcends traditional paradigms. Rather than focusing solely on reconciling the offender with the community or the victim, Sawbonna anchors itself in a holistic recognition of all parties’ shared humanity.

By weaving her model into the broader tapestry of both restorative and criminal justice, Van Sluytman made a compelling case for how Sawbonna aligns with broader social justice goals. It’s a model that doesn’t merely rehabilitate or reconcile; it humanizes, dignifies, and empowers.

One of the most striking aspects of her presentation was her emphasis on victims’ roles. In conventional justice processes, victims are often marginalized, their voices subdued beneath the weight of legal jargon and procedural formalities. They become, as Van Sluytman poignantly termed, “grief-stricken by-standers”. But in the world of Sawbonna, victims are transformed into proactive stakeholders. They’re not just passive recipients of justice but active shapers of it. They’re recognized as policy-makers, sound academics, and storytellers with insights that are both valuable and valid.

Margot’s presentation was more than just a theoretical discourse; it was a clarion call for a more compassionate, inclusive, and effective justice system. By intertwining her personal journey with her professional expertise, she underscored the pressing need for change and the potential benefits that such change can usher in.

As the session concluded, attendees were left with a renewed perspective on restorative justice. Gone was the notion of a one-size-fits-all approach. In its place was the vision of a dynamic, responsive model that places human dignity at its core.

In a world grappling with increasing polarization and divisiveness, Margot Van Sluytman’s Sawbonna offers a beacon of hope. It’s a reminder that even in the aftermath of tragedy, there’s an opportunity for mutual recognition, understanding, and growth. And as this trailblazing activist has shown, with the right approach, justice can be not just restorative but truly transformative.