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A revolution of restitution

By Sharlene Swartz

In President Zuma’s February State of the Nation address, he mentioned nine programmes dealing with restitution and redress that were to receive attention in the coming two to three years. Among these were (1) housing subsidies for those earning under R13000pa; (2) a retooling of the land reform process; (3) a new law dealing with San and Khoi-Khoi heritage; (4) punitive action against those who make a mockery of BBBEE through ‘fronting’; (5) implementing the youth employment subsidy); (6) commemorating the 1913 Land Act; (7) plans for commercial banks to grant loans to individuals not deemed creditworthy with government as guarantor; (8) aggressive plans for the re-industrialisation of the country to benefit its majority; and (9) a modest increase in the social wage through social grants.

These are all substantial actions, almost all directed towards those dishonoured by apartheid. They are therefore restitutionary. In its simplest definition restitution may be seen as the act of paying back for wrongs previously committed; the act of making right symbolically or materially. However, government projects, policies and programmes are only the tip of the iceberg if we are truly to put things right, make amends for the past and build a sustainable and peaceful future.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, in the foreword to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, had the same thought in mind when he called for “a social dynamic that includes redressing the suffering of victims” of apartheid injustice. This social dynamic, as opposed to a government-led one, has never fully emerged in South Africa. Instead it is clear that beneficiaries of apartheid still enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. The richest 20% in South Africa have an Human Development Index rank 101 places above the poorest 20%, which places them on the same standard of living as the wealthiest countries of the global North. Furthermore, the average ‘white’ household still earns six times that of the average ‘black’ household (National Labour & Economic Development Institute, 2003). The tragedy has been that apartheid’s beneficiaries generally tend not to acknowledge their complicity in the ongoing poverty in which the majority of South Africans remain mired. As The Arch laments: “The denial by so many white South Africans even that they benefited from apartheid is a crippling, self-inflicted blow to their capacity to enjoy and appropriate the fruits of change … Many of them carry a burden of guilt which would have been assuaged had they actively embraced the opportunities offered by the Commission.”

What South Africa and many other countries that have experienced similar atrocities require is a new ‘social dynamic’. A revolution of restitution perhaps. One that is not happy to stop until we have a decent life for all, and one that cannot possibility begin unless we all acknowledge our own complicity as beneficiaries during apartheid or since its end.

Besides the government programmes identified in the recent State of the Nation address, there are numerous small examples of what form restitution might take at community and interpersonal levels, as well as some innovative proposals for national initiatives. Among these are:

1. A commitment that your children only inherit 50% of your wealth, with the other half going into a restitution education fund for children harmed by apartheid.
2. Personal and sincere apologies between individuals.
3. Small company share (re)distribution.
4. A restitution (or wealth tax of, say, 2% for twenty years) – like that of Germany’s.
5. The Worcester Hope and Reconciliation Initiative that is promoting the giving and receiving of forgiveness, alongside symbolic acts, and relocation of prisoners wanting to make restitution for the fatal bomb attack of Christmas 1996.
6. Community development projects as intentional acts of restitution in egalitarian and economic partnerships, e.g. the Franschhoek Solms-Delta Project.
7. Reintegrating racially divided churches.
8. Cross-racial adoption as an act of restitution (with all its complications and contestations).

What else might we do – in a million small ways – to ignite a restitution revolution in our beloved country? In Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s 2012 budget, there was no mention of a wealth tax or a restitution tax for beneficiaries of apartheid. Why are we so coy in proposing dramatic solutions to a growing problem of inequality? We might be surprised how many South Africans would be willing to pay – nay, make an investment in tomorrow – especially if we can stop schools and libraries burning, and armed robberies in our suburban and kasi streets. The truth is we don’t really know where people (not merely the outspoken) stand on a wealth or restitution tax, or the extent to which people are satisfied with the government or civic-led projects flagged above. Are these the tip of the iceberg, or the full extent of our desire and ability to make things right in our beloved country?

Sharlene Swartz is a research director at the Human Sciences Research Council and an adjunct associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Cape Town. She is also the chairperson of the Restitution Foundation, a small Cape Town-based NGO. Sharlene is currently putting together a research study entitled “Restitution in broken spaces: A nine-country study of social attitudes, theoretical underpinnings and models for social transformation”.


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  1. Philip Cole Philip Cole 30 March 2012

    Thanks, Sharlene, for this timely article on the need for restitution. I especially appreciate you not just leaving the issue with the government but pointing out a whole series of practical things that individuals can do to contribute to restitution. The social tensions and inequalities of our country are quite simply too great for action to be just left to government. All of us must be part of reconciliation and restitution – we have no other option if we are to live together as one nation. Thanks also for all the wonderful work that the Restitution Foundation is doing.

  2. Nothile Nothile 30 March 2012

    Great article Sharlene. We have a country wounded by apartheid with a lot of people threatened by even hearing the word ‘restitution” because it somehow takes away what they have acquired over the years. Its sad to see that in a country that has acquired democracy for nearly 18 years nothing has changed much. I think as much as I am taken by your project and the ideas behind it, I do however find some of the proposals for national initiatives too ambitious. I am interested to hear about the findings of your study, especially the social attitudes aspect of it.

    Its good to see someone tackling the issue of restitution not just from a government perspective but also showing what we as individuals can do to build on restitution and contribute to the betterment of this country.

  3. Dave Harris Dave Harris 30 March 2012

    At last a voice of sanity! You have many creative and viable restitution ideas.

    Unfortunately, I not hopeful that beneficiaries of apartheid (BOA) will engage in restitution initiatives since our democracy is already at risk because the DA, that white tribal party, has hijacked the role of opposition and are using the judiciary to delay transformation every step of the way.

    Alas, the BOAs have proven from their track record that they will only change when they are FORCED to. e.g. Expropriation remains one of the only ways to fairly and efficiently enable significant land reform in our lifetime. Its in the interest of the BOAs not to simply wait for the government or engage in stalling tactics, but move ahead by proactively and honestly seeking solutions that will work now. Land restitution remains one of the most explosive issues that needs to be addressed with urgency!

  4. Tommy Madikoto Tommy Madikoto 30 March 2012

    Why not consider:

    Tax breaks for individuals paying minimum wage + contribution to education fund for the children of their domestic workers and gardeners.
    Rewarding individuals, small and medium employers for each employee they employ.
    Linking the social wage (where applicable) to proof of active job seeking and school attendance.
    Focusing government attention to programmes which empower, e.g. providing quality education and vocational skills development.
    Debriefing South Africans about our past. e.g. apartheid, liberation today education tomorrow, etc.
    Institute a countrywide intense artisan development programme.
    Ring fence all government and big business maintenance work for training of small and medium black enterprises.

    In a climate where tax paying South Africans have little faith in government control of their hard earned money, it is not prudent to create funds which will be controlled by government. Rather unleash the potential of South Africans to dictate where their money is best spent for restitution purposes.

  5. Truthbetold Truthbetold 30 March 2012

    I hope that our fellow countrymen share your thoughts or agree with you, if that’s the case, our country is going to be saved.

  6. Catch a Wake Up Catch a Wake Up 30 March 2012

    Restitution – grievance and entitlement. Claims by the worst of the worst – and I mean this sincerely – it has blow-all to do with race – on the best of the best. Dragging the best down to the lowest, most useless common denominator. Making us ALL bergies – sad, lazy people hurling accusations and demanding favours from those who work, and who are better people than us – this has f- all to do with RACE people. The whole idea is rotten to the core – and will make SA a losing nation – of losers – useless, pathetic, losers – who love to blame others for their own lack of achievement.

  7. Catch a Wake Up Catch a Wake Up 30 March 2012

    “A restitution (or wealth tax of, say, 2% for twenty years) – like that of Germany’s.” Great idea that – except you were thinking of Nazi Germany, which had a thriving economy. How about an East German tax – based on all the communists and parasites paying their income to the tiny minority of productive Germans? Not politically correct?

  8. Catch a Wake Up Catch a Wake Up 30 March 2012

    You are well meaning, but terribly naive. I fear you will be used by those who love your simple narrative of racial wholesomeness versus evil, which is beloved by the truly malevolent in society and the political elite. I hope you will read more history and become more sophisticated, whilst still being well meaning, which I respect.

  9. Koos Koos 31 March 2012

    Interesting article but let’s also look at the other side of the coin. If the so called “whites” never left Europe would they not have been better off? If they never came here they would never have “benefitted” but they would most probably have done just as well if not better in Europe where most of them came from.
    South Africans are paying some of the highest taxes in the world and also give just as much if not more to charities than any other 1st World country.
    We do have a problem with the poor a huge problem I do agree but to lay it all on us because we benefitted because of apartheid is utter nonsense.
    Twenty years ago this was a relative cheap country to live in, now it is one of the most expensive. The reason you would find most probably is in the implementation of BEE and AA. At the same time this made most people poorer and a few very rich.
    Let’s look at the goverment of today which loses about 25% of its taxed income through corruption. Not one of the paratatals are functioning as it should be. The loss of money is not only through corruption but also because of bad and mis management. Most probably another 25% loss.
    If we take also this money that just disappears and change the labour laws we would probably easily solve the poor problem.
    Let’s not forget the failed education and healthcare system etc.

  10. Benzo Benzo 31 March 2012

    I red your 8 ideas about restitution. As the present becomes history on a day by day basis, your ideas for restitution become more difficult as times go by. Facts and myths become more fuzzy over time as becomes clear from the comments by different respondents. Other than that, many of the people who could give restitution are not with us any longer. It would be unfair to burden their BOA grandchildren with the obligation to restore because they profited from the education system that was within their reach while the many BOPA’s (Beneficiairies of present apartheid) keep fighting for “liberation before education”, damaging or destroying infrastructure presenting a serious injustice to their more civilised brothers.

    Restitution of unjustices done in the most recent past are easier to qualify and quantify. If we could agree that fraud and corruption is a serious form of injustice done to society, we could ask the current governement that all fraudulent civil servants (caught or not) return their ill gotten gains back into the treasury bank account. Remember the arms deal, travel gate….. and…and

    A few billions could so be freed up for social and education programs. Such a gesture might encourage people who committed earlier acts of unjustice to own up and do the same. It could restore trust in a government that currently has become totally untrustworthy, even by the people who have been voting for them over the last years.

  11. gert gert 1 April 2012

    I’m in agreement with Koos. Europeans aren’t beneficiaries of apartheid. Except for
    a very small sliver of the European population, everyone but everyone was screwed over by
    the system. The vast majority of Europeans are thus victims of apartheid, not beneficiaries.
    90% of Europeans in SA today would be better off, had their forefathers never got
    Onto ships.
    I loathe people who suggest I have ANY kind of debt to pay to anyone because of how
    I look. You don’t know me, and you don’t know my circumstances.
    If anything, Europeans are OWED by Africans. Of course that fact is politically incorrect
    In a country of ‘pure democracy’- if it breeds, it leads. How debased and animalistic.
    After all is said and done, Europeans still don’t have their own country as promised at
    Codesa by that forked-tongue terrorist. We know who has a lot of foot washing to do!

  12. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 1 April 2012

    Are the “whites” better off in South Africa than their counterparts in Europe, Australia, North America?

    Do they, for example, have a longer life expectancy, health care, social security?
    Are they more secure in their homes?
    Do they get more for services from the State in relation to the tax that they pay?

  13. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 1 April 2012

    My Buchanan relatives in Britain, and Lindley relatives in America, are all stinking rich.

    My dumb ancestors decided to come to help Africa as missionaries!

  14. Max Max 1 April 2012

    I have forcibly donated a bmw, two cell phones, and a laptop with three years worth of work – on educational materials as well as countless personal photographs and diary entries (amongst other things) to the cause of previously disadvantaged people who felt they had a right to come into my house, armed, take these things from me. Will the value of these items be deducted from whatever else I am made to donate? If I decide to leave 50% of my material worth to the cause of apartheid restitution, how much shall I deduct based on losses described above? And in the case of trauma and injury as a result of the above, how much am I to deduct further from my restitutive contributions?

  15. Jack Sparrow Jack Sparrow 2 April 2012

    How blind are those that cannot see. Do you really think that the money will go to the poor? Naive in the extreme. Gordhan is desperate for cash to fill the ANC cadre trough and anything goes. That’s where most of the money intended for land restitution went and where the rest will go. Read the signs and leave now.

  16. Oldfox Oldfox 2 April 2012

    My comment – focussed on income inequality – either has yet to be accepted, or was deleted by an editor.
    Maybe it’s time I stopped reading TL, and remove it’s e-mail notifications.

  17. Benzo Benzo 2 April 2012

    @Max: Interesting take.

    Insurance companies could confirm the total value of donations in real numbers. :-)

  18. Graham Johnson Graham Johnson 2 April 2012

    We handed over a country that was technologically at the front of civilisation. The majority inherited a working, clean, infrastructure.

    Like Max (above), I have had a goods worth hundreds of thousands of Rands stolen from me at gunpoint. Several times.

    I pay staff that are part of the new majority. It doesn’t stop them stealing from me at the same time.

    I have pay for, but suffer from, the total ineptitude of local and national civil servants with whom I deal. It costs me hugely to sort out the billing messes they make continuously.

    What exactly is it that I am supposed to feel again? I’ve forgotten. And how much more must I lose to make this imaginary feeling go away?

    The problem is not restitution, it’s contraception.

  19. Sarah Henkeman Sarah Henkeman 3 April 2012

    An article by Motsoko Pheko provides some food for thought and gives a historical perspective, as opposed to where the debate seems to be stuck at: denial about who benefitted more or less or not at all. It moves the debate to the heart of present inequality based on past dispossession. Not for the fainthearted – can be found at

  20. Benzo Benzo 3 April 2012

    @Sara Henkeman: I did take the time to read : “South Africa: 12 ways to distribute land equitably”

    Along the same lines as “we want..” and “we need…” not very practical proposals in more than one way.

    “Giving” land to the poor and downtrodden will not help anyone. A farmer once made the comment: “you cannot eat land… have to work it…”

    In none of the proposals of this articles did I hear any reference to how thse poor and illiterate are going to work the land.

  21. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 4 April 2012

    @Sara Henkeman:

    In point 9 in the link that you provided is a contradiction:

    He writes about genocide but in the next sentence mentions that the population is 10 times higher than in 1913!
    Some genocide!

    “9. More land must be allocated to the rural areas, especially for farming. The land allocated to Africans by the colonialists through the Native Land Act 1913 was an act of genocide. It is worse 100 years later. The population is ten times higher than in 1913. There is unbearable poverty in the rural areas, culminating in diseases, illiteracy, high child mortality and short life expectancy. Rural communities with access to land need the support, training and expertise to generate wealth where they live. “

  22. Sarah Henkeman Sarah Henkeman 4 April 2012

    @Benzo – I prefer not to respond to your ‘we want, we need’ comment, because that will take us back to the impasse where the ‘informal’ debate has been stuck for the past few years.

    Mr Pheko’s proposals move things forward considerably – maybe because of its shock value : ).

    As you will note from my comment – I specifically say the article moves the debate to the heart of the real issues in this society. Great to note that you do not deny the historical truth it is rooted in. You are a very honest man, yet you seem to take an oppositional stance. Maybe I should have suggested a dialogue – I apologise.

    In the spirit of dialogue then sir, how do you propose we all, as a society, solve the problem of the poverty, illiteracy and unworked land you have put on the table? All very valid points.

  23. Sarah Henkeman Sarah Henkeman 4 April 2012

    @Ms Sharlene Swartz, I apologise for omitting to acknowledge that the article provided the space and invitation to engage. Much appreciated.

  24. Sarah Henkeman Sarah Henkeman 4 April 2012

    editor pse take that ‘not’ out … double jeopardy :)

  25. Sarah Henkeman Sarah Henkeman 5 April 2012

    @Ernst Marais – I’m sure you can engage with the author on the Sacsis page with regard to his choice of metaphor. The overall proposals send a message which seem to try and avoid a future bloodbath. Ms Swarts refers to it as ‘… wrongs previously committed; the act of making right symbolically or materially. Whatever the exaggeration or the euphemism, there is agreement about thevlink between the grossly unjust past and present structural violence.

    What are your proposals with regard to the historical truth that Ms Swarts refers to if Mr Pheko’s metaphor galls you too much?

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