I recently watched the movie Woman in Gold. It is based on a true story about Maria Altmann’s journey in getting the Austrian government to return to her a Klimt painting that was stolen from her family during the Nazi occupation of Austria during World War II. This women’s journey towards justice is a long and arduous one where she takes on an entire government in the name of justice and restitution. She hopes the painting will be returned to her because it belongs to her family.
The backdrop of Austria’s law on art restitution makes the film more interesting. I was struck by the idea of restitution and I couldn’t help but think of Africa’s history of colonialism (and slavery) and South Africa’s history of apartheid where land and resources were taken from black people and the question of land redistribution always leaves people frothing at the mouth depending on which side of the argument one finds oneself.
I was struck by the use of the word restitution, which only seems to feature in South Africa when talking about land. Is it possible to use the word and apply it to other contexts and restore what was taken from an oppressed group of people? The Altmann story is reported as a story about justice. Returning what was stolen from her family is not seen as entitlement or a misunderstanding of the past. When the issue of restitution has come up in South Africa it has been loaded with many narratives about the settlers working very hard to make tame a rugged people and ploughing an unforgiving landscape rather than the question of justice: how do you make right a system that benefitted a minority of people? There’s also been a discourse, which casts doubt on the ability of people of colour to look after the land the same way white farmers have done. The fact that “land grabs” have happened on the continent doesn’t help the argument that land needs to be redistributed.
I have tried to follow the conversation about land redistribution in South Africa and always feel as though I am buried under a mountain of information that makes the situation too complex for an outsider to understand. The Centre for Law and Society has been my reference point for all these issues. On their website they offer a web diagram which shows how the apartheid laws are linked to the new laws in South Africa. Perhaps it is not meant to appear complex but the list of laws that deal with the land issue suggest a level of complexity that needs experts to solve the issue. I find this tactic interesting as it bogs down the issue of justice because it becomes “too complex”. Perhaps it is complex and the remnants of the homeland structures adds to this complexity: who has the right to own land? To whom should the land be restored?
The questions raised by the film and Altmann’s experience pale in comparison to the South African land issue and restoring what was taken from the black majority in 1913. The same conversation applies to the mining sector and who owns the mines in South Africa (the Marikana massacre is a perfect example of the problem). This window-dressing of token black faces sitting on the boards of mining companies does not mean the same as owning the mines. The poverty surrounding the platinum belt in the North West is a question of justice rather than angry, poor, black people.
The film is also a reminder of how pop culture and the film industry has been instrumental in making sure that the Holocaust is not forgotten. I can think of many films that make reference to the atrocities of World War II and this is important. But many South Africans are quick to wish the history of apartheid away: this takes on the form of “they really need to get over apartheid” or “I’m so tired of talking about apartheid”. Apart from Sarafina, Cry the Beloved Country, Cry Freedom, Forgiveness, Red Dust and a few other shows on SABC, South Africa’s pop culture suggests a lack of recognition of justice and restitution. This is also a matter of justice. It’s not possible to expect apartheid to be forgotten after 21 years while we agree that what the Nazis did has not been forgotten or wished away.
It may just be a movie, but watching Woman in Gold in a South African context is significant. It should make us think about justice and restitution and what it means for South Africa. It is also a reminder about how to respond to a history of oppression and dispossession. Justice and restitution are yet to become a reality in South Africa. For as long as movies are being created about the Holocaust, it’s too soon to forget about apartheid.