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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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