Address by President Nelson Mandela at the opening of the Emthonjeni Youth Centre, Pretoria

25 August 1998

Cabinet Ministers;
Distinguished Guests;

We all know that crime is a serious problem for our nation and economy, and that we must do something jointly and decisively about it. We also know that it is a complex problem that has many causes which we have to tackle in a coordinated way. What happens in our prison system is a critical part of our fight against crime, and I am therefore pleased to be taking part in the launch of an initiative which has the potential to make a real difference.

First of all, it is good to see that we have moved away from the culture of apartheid where prisoners were inhumanly treated. By denying the humanity that is in all of us, it robbed prisoners of their dignity. And precisely because it does so, such an approach tends to perpetuate a production cycle of more and worse offenders who terrorise our society.

We have to create a culture that will motivate offenders to become law-abiding and productive citizens. They need to be re-integrated back into the community because we want them to contribute to the good of all. The youth, our nation's future, are especially important in that regard.

If center's of this kind put the emphasis on youth development rather than imprisonment it is for a very good reason. Persons under the age of 21 years are extremely vulnerable. They are also at an age when they are most likely to respond positively to efforts aimed at mending their young lives and preparing them to be worthy and valuable citizens.

Of course, imprisonment is a punishment, and rightly so. Those who break the law must pay the price. But we should also use it as a starting point for development and a process of healing.

It is true and no secret that I adore children regardless of who and what they are and there is no reason why I should ignore the 11,700 juvenile offenders we have in our prisons today. I have deep contempt for any criminal activity and I am aware that there is so much fear, pain and suffering caused by crime in our country.

Government will not tolerate crime.

However, it does not mean that we have to ignore offenders. They are part of our society's problem and rejecting them is not going to solve the problem of crime. They are human beings too, they are our brothers, sisters, our sons and daughters who have disappointed us. They have the right to a chance to unlock their potential to better themselves.

And so we have an enormous responsibility as South Africans towards our prisoners, especially young first-time offenders who have their lives ahead of them.

Government for its part is transforming the prison system and the treatment of offenders, both as part of the creation of a democratic society and in order to reduce crime. Part of that endeavour is the building of facilities such as development centers and forming educational programmes for juveniles.

One of the ways in which Youth Development Centers can contribute to our objectives is by changing prisons into safety institutions in which youth offenders are separated from older prisoners. Gone are the days when juvenile offenders were at the mercy of hardened criminals and had to share facilities with them. Not only did this hold great danger for their personal safety, but it also led to our prisons becoming schools of crime.

Such transformation will, no doubt, also strengthen the authorities in their efforts to make our prisons more secure. It is essential that those whom the courts sentence would know that they will only leave prison when they are lawfully released. That is what the public expects of the authorities. Unfortunately there are officials who betray their calling in such ways as assisting in escapes from custody or in the smuggling of weapons or illegal substances.

This is part of the wider cancer of corruption that is undermining our efforts in all areas of society. We have learnt now that even those people with whom we fought the struggle against apartheid's corruption can themselves become corrupted. The government appointed Judge Heath to expose corruption in government. He is doing a good job and we will continue to encourage him.

In the same way we encourage Correctional Services in its efforts to root out the minority of corrupt elements who undermine the work of the majority of officials, men and women of integrity working under difficult conditions.

Ladies and gentlemen;

If the establishment of youth development centers is to succeed in creating an atmosphere that is conducive to learning and development, we must foster co-responsibility for personal development and growth on the part of juveniles themselves as well as their families.

That is why the Department of Correctional Services has instituted out-reach programmes to involve the community. Parents must actively participate in the process by motivating their children. We all need to join hands to rescue these youngsters and transform them into worthy and respected citizens of our country. We owe it to them and we owe it to ourselves.

Young people themselves must play their part. Through dedication, hard work and commitment they can help themselves. In doing so they will also help counter the atmosphere of entitlement that is too often leading young people to abuse what we are doing to equip our youth to become the leaders of tomorrow.

May I therefore in conclusion address a few words to the young people with us today. I urge you to grasp the opportunity before you - such opportunities are rare. Your destiny is in your hands. You have wronged society and you are being punished accordingly. Make this the turning point in your life. We are developing this kind of institution because we have confidence in what you can become. Take up the challenge and earn your rightful places in the community. Your success will open the way for many others to rebuild their lives and to help build our nation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great privilege for me to declare the Emthonjeni Youth Development Centre officially open.

I thank you all.

Issued by: Office of the President

Source: South African Government Information Website