Original Research - Special Collection: Social Memory Studies

Forgiveness as a spiritual construct experienced by men serving long-term sentences in Zonderwater, South Africa

Christina Landman, Tanya Pieterse
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 76, No 4 | a6276 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v76i4.6276 | © 2020 Christina Landman, Tanya Pieterse | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 28 July 2020 | Published: 30 November 2020

About the author(s)

Christina Landman, Research Institute for Theology and Religion, College of Human Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa
Tanya Pieterse, Research Institute for Theology and Religion, College of Human Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa


This article presents the findings of research conducted on ‘forgiveness’ as a spiritual construct, religious survival strategy and meaning-giving tool during incarceration. The research was conducted with 30 men serving long-term sentences in Zonderwater, a correctional centre outside Pretoria, South Africa. A review of literature showed that forgiveness has mainly been seen as something the perpetrator owed the victim and that asking for and granting forgiveness were religious imperatives. However, this study shows that offenders, in the troubled space of incarceration, survived by putting themselves in control of forgiveness. They found peace of mind by granting forgiveness to those who caused them to be incarcerated, whilst at the same time taking responsibility for their own actions. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with the participants. Applying an interpretative phenomenological analysis methodology, the collected data were analysed and the following themes were identified: (1) forgiving those who transgressed against me; (2) the role of politics in forgiveness; (3) God’s role in forgiveness; and (4) the effects of forgiveness on the self.

Contribution: This article contributes to an understanding of the construction of forgiveness as experienced by offenders, independent from the traditional victim-offender relations. Living in a troubled, unforgiving space, these men are expected to practice forgiveness by set standards. From their shared narratives, it is illustrated that their spiritual navigation with this phenomenon is not a chronological, time dependent process, but a multi-dimensional, personal journey to self-discovery.


forgiveness; spiritual construct; religion during incarceration; God in troubled spaces, Zonderwater; self-forgiveness; victim–perpetrator; troubled space; interpretative phenomenological analysis


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