Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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'At the heart of the matter': A comparative analysis of youth justice transformation between New Zealand and South Africa

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posted on 2021-11-13, 12:45 authored by Shearar, Ashley

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 jurisdictions, as well as South Africa’s diversion programmes, which have particularly benefitted other African countries.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Public Policy

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

940202 Public Services Policy Advice and Analysis

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Government


Ryan, Bill; Baehler, Karen; Maxwell, Gabrielle