Sentenced to the good life: notes from Norway, lessons for South Africa?

Sentenced to the good life: notes from Norway, lessons for South Africa?

A few weeks ago, on the 23rd of August, 2012 I attended a South African government funded ‘Women’s Forum’ in the rural South African town of Lady Frere. The event was ‘Women only’ but I managed to gain entry by virtue of the fact that I went to listen to my sister who was one of the speakers addressing the, mostly old, rural women at the Forum. Entertainment was provided by young, all male South African prisoners from the correctional services. They provided a powerful shattering performance of song, and moved most attendees both to tears and dance. One woman behind me remarked in Xhosa: baphi omama babantwana xa becula kamndi kangaka? [Loosely translated: where are these kids mothers to see them singing so beautifully]. While another remarked, bacula kamandi kanganga, siyabathanda kodwa sidlwengulwa kwangabo! [Loosly meaning: They sing so beautifully, we love them yet they are the same people who rape us!]

In that same week far away from South Africa, in a case that left the world fascinated, in Norway a five-judge panel gave judgement in the controversial case of anti-Islamic mass killer, Anders Behring Breivik. The panel concluded that Breivik who murdered 77 people was evil rather than sick and consequently sentenced him to 21 years in prison, the maximum sentence in Norwegian law. Mark Lewis writing for TIME notes that “The decision, coming more than four months after his trial began, was greeted with confused dismay by most overseas observers but was well received by the murderer of 77 people, as it was by the surviving victims, the families of the dead and most of the country.” (1)

Norway has a proud history of liberal justice, thriving on rehabilitation over retribution. Although many from overseas cried for the death penalty or lifetime imprisonment to be imposed on Breivik, many in Norway are noted to be happy with the imposition of the 21-year maximum sentence. (2) More stunning however to the international community are the conditions under which prisoners are kept in Norway. Mark Lewis for instance notes that “Some [in the international community] are outraged at the comforts of the three-room cell he [Breivik] will occupy in Ila Prison in Oslo, complete with gym equipment, computer and television.”(3)

In his stellar July, 2010 feature Sentenced to Serving the Good Life in Norway William Lee Adams went inside Norway’s Bastoy, Halden and Oslo prisons. (4) At Bastoy, Williams notes “Besides enjoying views of the surrounding fjord, [the inmates] go horseback riding and throw barbecues, and have access to a movie theater, tanning bed and, during winter, two ski jumps.” Williams further notes that although most countries are building larger prisons, harsher prisons, Norwegians however “see the island as the embodiment of their country’s long-standing penal philosophy: that traditional, repressive prisons do not work, and that treating prisoners humanely boosts their chances of reintegrating into society.” (5)

More stunning about the Norwegian justice system to the international community is also the fact that the system actually works in reintegrating prisoners back into ordinary life post the imposed sentence. It is noted for instance that only 20% of Norway’s prisoners end up back in jail within two years after release. This figure stands at 50% in the United Kingdom, and at 60% in the United States. Williams notes that “Norway’s low level of criminality gives it a massive advantage. Its prison roll lists a mere 3,300 inmates, a rate of 70 per 100,000 people, compared with 2.3 million in the U.S., or 753 per 100,000 — the highest rate in the world.”  The success of the Norwegian justice system is generally attributed to the low crime levels in both Norway and fellow Nordic countries and the strong effective welfare system which effectively curb the two most common drivers of criminal activity: inequality and poverty. Countries that invest in education, health and social security have been noted in a number of studies to spend less on their prison systems. John Pratt a professor of criminology at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington notes that “For marginalized populations in Anglo countries, the prison increasingly acts as a kind of surrogate welfare state, that’s not only much more expensive than running a welfare state, it’s also brutalizing and often degrading — and that has negative consequences for everyone.” (6)These are the similar remarks echoed by Knut Storberget that “If you want to reduce crime, you have to do something other than putting them [criminals] in prison and locking the door.” (7)

Back in South Africa, I spent the week deeply moved by the performances from the Department of Correctional Services choir, and I kept thinking to myself: what a powerful testament to wasted youth. These young men clearly have a lot to offer. What could be done to channel their attention to the use of their talents, rather than in crime? The International International Centre for Prison Study notes that South Africa houses an estimated 146 000 inmate population, the largest in Africa. This means South Africa incarcerates around 316 people out of every 100 000 South Africans. South Africa is followed by Ethiopia (estimated 85 000), with Egypt, Rwanda and Morocco all collectively falling in the 60 000’s. (8)

The South African Minister of Correctional Services, Sibusiso Ndebele on the 30th of August made a call, in particular to mothers to help lend support to the 53 000 young inmates scattered across the country. “We call upon mothers in particular, to help us focus on the many young inmates who happen to be young black men,” he stated in his statement marking the end of “Women’s month” in South Africa. He continues to note “The average offender is a young substance abuser who has dropped out of school, is functionally illiterate and, more often, homeless. For most of them the only family they know are the other prisoners and the only parents they know is the system of corrections.” (9)

I do not have grand solutions about how South Africa can ensure the reintegration of its prisoners back to society, but what I do have is knowledge of what works, and I do believe that Norway can offer important lessons for South Africa. At the outset it’s worth qualifying the obvious in that, according to World Bank estimates:  Norway has a total population of 4,952,000, whereas South Africa has a total population of 50,586,757 (close to ten times that of Norway). Norway teaches us that investment in citizens through education, proper healthcare is an effective method in curbing down crime. Furthermore Norway teaches us that being in prison is not the punishment itself, but going to prison is an act of correction with the aim of reintegrating those who have faltered back into society. Another interesting dynamic to the success of the Norway justice system for instance is the role of the media. Williams (10) notes “The national media’s portrayal of crime also helps foster tolerance for Norway’s prison system. Newspapers rely on subscriptions rather than newsstand sales, so they don’t depend on sensational headlines. And the writing style is less emotional, more pragmatic, than in other countries… In Norway, acts of extreme violence are seen as aberrant events, not symptoms of national decay.”

Clearly, reintegrating offenders back to society is not only the work of mothers as the South African Justice minister would have us believe, nor is it only the work of the Justice system alone. Notes from Norway show that it is a collective effort, from the language we use as society to describe prisoners, to what they are occupied with during their incarceration. Norway focuses on equipping prisoners with both social and educational skills, so that when prisoners leave, they are not merely defined by their criminal record, but rather the skills that they have to offer back into society. An old adage goes: “He [she] who opens a school door , closes a prison”. Maybe the South African government will start with that: opening school doors for all children and delivering books/materials in time, so we may close a prison, or two.

Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum (BLF) Contributor. His short bio and previous articles can be found here.


  1. Mark Lewis. 2012. “Why Norway Is Satisfied with Breivik’s Sentence”, TIME, Aug 24. URL:
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. William Lee Adams. 2010. “Sentenced to Serving the Good Life in Norway”, TIME, July 12. URL:,9171,2000920,00.htmlIbid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ndebele, Sibusiso. 2, September, 2012. City Press, “Voices”.
  8. SAPA. 2012. “Ndebele: Young inmates need support”, News24. URL:
  9. Ibid


Gcobani Qambela

Gcobani Qambela is a Graduate Student in South Africa with an interest in African masculinities, HIV/AIDS research and public health in general.

5 Responses to Sentenced to the good life: notes from Norway, lessons for South Africa?

  1. I Read This… And I Don’t Know How I Feel Is The Right Way To Deal With Law Offenders… I Hear You, And Your Argument Is Sound… I Feel However It Is Not Immediately Practical For South Africa To Actively And Effectively Take The Lessons Of Norway… I Like The Thinking That There Is A Good In Every Person That Must Be Cultivated, I Think Its A Stretched Assumption To Umbrella Everyone To Want To Think Or Do Good Though – And So Sadly I Think We Need To Make Way Or Be Open To The Reality Of A “Criminal Mind”, Whether It Came To Be By Socialisation Or Abuse Or Other Ways – And While Say The Percentage Of People With A Criminal Mind Is Small I Think The Consequence Of Ignoring Such Reality Is Dire, Even When Juxtaposed With People Who Commit Criminal Offences As A Result Of Some External Encumberment… So I Dont Know How Much I Trust The Norwegian System To Engage The Depth Of Crime And Criminalised Thinking, And So I Think For South Africa It Would Act As A Sieve And I Think We Looking For A More Safe-Than-Sorry Approach To Prisoners And Not A System Where There Are Some Who Will Get Away Because Of Our Lenience… And Some Who Will Not Respect The Consequences Of Their Actions… But I Get Your Stat(s) On The Results Of The System In Norway And They Encouraging – And The Loss Of Black Man In South Africa Is Both Unfortunate And Unacceptable – And If There Is A System That Works Then We Should Engage It, Realistically… Thank You For An Informative And Thought Provoking Article – Was An Interesting Read Indeed

  2. Thanks for the comment Lu. I hear and AGREE with you. I think more than anything I was trying to stress that it cannot happen NOW as things are in SA, but I have no doubt that there are many talented young people, who happen to be BLACK locked behind bars who could be of utility one way/or another to our country/economy. What I’m saying is not new really, that Norway shows that if you have a FUNCTIONING country, with proper education, employability prospects, healthcare, (where necessary) welfare system, SUPPORT and clearly even LOVE from your government, then that creates an environment where there is very little inequality or poverty (which are the main drivers in SA/elsewhere in the world). As I show, in ‘first world countries’ like the US/UK they have the same problem as SA when it comes to their prison population because there is a WIDE inequality gap in those countries, but if you look at Norway, and even the Arab emirates states for instance where there isn’t such inequality, but access to opportunity, there is very little crime. obviously as I note in the piece we have TEN times the population of Norway so the dynamics are completely different. But what I get from the Norway system is that even though the conditions are so good in prisons, I mean look at that MURDERER sunbathing on an island prison, its more than just about how well they are treated, but more also about reintegration. They have a prison for instance where an inmate has to get a job, work during the day IN ‘ordinary’ society, pay bills etc but go back later to ‘prison’, when a prisoner escapes, they have to call and let the authorities know at the minimun that they are OKAY so helicopters don’t have to be used! I mean think about that. But anyways I’m losing it now: yah, agree with you, also told the BLF editors I didn’t want to write an ‘academic’ piece with all these grand (often impracticable) solutions about how we can learn from Norway, but I do think we should ponder deeply about both what we can use from their system, and what wouldn’t work in our context and I argue towards the end that, that should at the minumum start with education: keep kids in school and SKILL them. But I’m certainly no expert. Thanks for reading and engaging!

  3. Lovely piece with a number of salient points to digest. I will but talk to one point, and please bear with me if it seems I am going off tangent (the idea might not yet be ripe for articulation :-) )

    Education is certainly an important ingredient to solving many of the problems faced by SA (and indeed many other countries dealing with deep inequalities, poverty, etc). The question is: which education are we talking about? We have the formal and informal education. Both, of course, are key; but my concern is that somehow our articulation seems to create a dichotomy that feeds into our problems in that it becomes easier to loose links that bring greater appreciation of interconnectedness of issues. For example, in my mind, “trust systems” are cultivated through informal education and possibly reinforced by formal education. Assuming I am right, this says we need to be very careful in talking about education linked to schooling because we may inadvertently create a scenario where the burden of responsibility lies too heavily on some and not all parties. Again, in my mind, for all to be accountable, we need to actively reverse this scenario. For me, this can be done by remembering truths that we already know: 1) we are all learners and educators in the school of life; 2) it takes a village to raise a child … and grow peacefully together.

    • Thanks for the comment Mathe, and no, your comment makes perfect sense to me and I do agree with you.

      Admittedly in the piece I do also fall into the category of people who view education primarily in its formal form, forgetting that “trust systems” as shown in Norway’s case, require collective action beyond just the classroom. And also I think, especially in the SA case, I have to agree with you that you cannot separate other issues such a poverty, social exclusion etc, because our prison population is made up of people who have primarily been excluded from formal education, so what good is it anyways in SA to force that person who has already been failed by the formal classroom, to then tell them after prison to go back into that very class that they left, self perpetuating cycle.

      That’s why I like your idea of also pushing the informal education perhaps with the formal as well. So I too agree with you, that’s something to ponder on: How we as the relatively students at the university of life can help our fellow students who have been left behind, or made the wrong ‘calculations’ in life, how can we as the SA village help them catch up and ‘fix’ their miscalculations. I thank you for reading and engaging! :)

Leave a reply