Foreword to Another Country by Antjie Krog

Thoughts on restitution

The concept of restitution presents South Africans with profound challenges. The word in English has three meanings: to restore something lost or stolen to its proper owner; to recompense or compensate for injury or loss; the restoration of something to its original state. All three these explanations have as a central axis: that something should be done in order to return to some previous equilibrium. It seems then that the first question should be: what was the previous ‘equilibrium’? In order to work out what should be done (the direction and amount of the deeds), it is crucial to determine where one wants to be after the restoration act.

Exactly how difficult it is to do that, became clear during a public meeting with the first Minister of Finance. He was asked at a press conference, focusing on the reparation for victims after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whether there was a post-TRC plan to get from Whites what was needed to repair the past? He answered: ‘Even if we take everything Whites have, it will never make up for what they did. What we need to address inequality, is a 6% growth rate.’

This was of course the truth. Nothing could ever repair the damage of three centuries. But in another way it was also exemplary of our collective unwillingness to do some complex thinking. What was it that Black people desired after Apartheid? What were the outlines of their dreams? Whatever was negotiated and understood, misunderstood or taken for granted – was there anybody in South Africa who thought that the country materially could stay as it was with all the resources remaining in specific areas and classes?

In 1994 it would have been important for Whites to hear the conditions under which they were to be accommodated or rejected in the new South Africa: ‘We don’t want you here’; or: ‘We want Whites, but only poor ones – or only rich ones’; or: ‘We want Whites to take responsibility willingly for everything that fails’; or: ‘For three centuries the country has invested its best and most powerful resources in you, so for three generations you will use your accumulated skills, knowledge and resources to eradicate for ever the Verwoerd education system, or mend the distorted transport system, or build an appropriate health system’; or perhaps even: ‘Every White should report to a township school and assist with rendering services from cleaning toilets and safeguarding buildings and people, to teaching and marking as and when necessary’. However problematic, ridiculous or unpractical these suggestions might sound, they would have focused all of our minds on what kind of society we wanted to live in, under whose leadership this should be achieved and what we were willing to pay for it. The clearly spelt out decision by Black people of what White people should do, would forcefully have established a new invaluable power-relationship as well as a vision towards which all South Africans could work.

Returning to the axis in the definitions, in order to execute restitution two phases are needed: the first is to agree on what the ‘original state’ was (and that is more complex than simply to get a bicycle back!). Do people want to return to tribal and rural life with land and chiefs? Or is it South Africa as it is today with its interconnectedness to international human rights and individualism, its cities with all its trappings of greed and consumerism? And with Whites who know their place?

Forming an opinion based on the worst in social media, there is a desire for a personal physical experience: to see Whites impoverished, humiliated and in their own most basic needs depending on the whim and mercy of Black people. At times even a wish for a French Revolution scenario: to move into the deserted houses of the rich, run through the enormous gardens, mess in the pools and experience physical revenge by spilling blood? I believe all of this is actually underpinned by an understandable basic yearning: to take over the mines, the houses, the cars, the farms, so that one would never again live the vulnerable life of dread, anxiety, poverty and oppression.

It is in many ways an impossibility to define or probably to get an agreement as to what is the original state that people want to return to, yet it has to be done, because the closer we can get to a description or vision of such a state, the sooner the country’s people can begin to take steps for a massive rearrangement. If we agree that it is not only impossible but also undesirable to return to any previous state (as happened after World War 2 in Europe) we have to begin to use the concept of paying a fine or damage tax and then determine who will pay what and how that will be distributed by whom so that everybody benefits?

For me, personally, it has to begin with space. The essence of colonialism is space – the expropriation and personal consuming of space. The colonial and Apartheid worlds were worlds divided and dividing. Therefore decolonisation must mean the making whole, the recreation, re-appropriation and reconfiguration of space. It means more than simply eradicating the lines of force that keep zones apart; it requires fundamental social and economic change.

But again: how is this restitution to be executed? How is the transfer to happen? Are individual farms and houses to be transferred to individual owners, or is land to be nationalised? In other words, is the choice socialist or capitalist in nature? Are we for sharing or for individual ownership?

Ten years ago I felt that all land should be nationalised. Then one could say: the land truly belongs to all the South African people, all of us; those on farms merely have leasehold. But with the current set of leaders it seems impossible to execute any plan demanding of clear ethical thinking, selfless motivation and moral example. The rhetoric of freedom and justice has evaporated into increasingly shabby talk about a developmental state, while the examples of leaders suggest freedom from Apartheid means freedom to shop and especially freedom not to be accountable. Even worse: in the financial systems of today the poor suddenly have to become entrepreneurs.

When last did we hear anybody talk about a just society, a better life for everybody, suggesting that enough was a feast? In strikes and wage bargaining one seldom hears the words: justice, fairness, empathy. And why would we – being bombarded by the vulgar excesses of celebrity life and vainglorious luxury on television, billboards and magazines only acknowledging the right to consume?

Fanon warned decades ago how quickly liberation can degenerate when it lacks humanist content. Movements without it, fall into undemocratic and brutal ways especially when a ruling party, masked by the mixed rhetoric of Africanism, Ubuntu and possessive individualism, begins to focus only on sectional and ethnic interests. He suggested that in order not to create new hierarchies, we should establish ‘relations of comradeship, of solidarity, of love, relations which prefigure the sort of society we struggle for.’

And it is especially in this light that Swartz’s book makes sense. As requested by Steve Biko, Swartz’s issue is with Whites, and those Whites who do not feel guilty or responsible for an unjust past – she hammers them with interviews, statistics and facts. But the real value in the book is probably the attempt to describe how purposefully to create relationships across race and cultural barriers. She suggests personal dialogue with those who differ from you and within this engagement it would be possible for people to articulate a sense of responsibility, guilt and restitution as well as assist one another to achieve that. One of the most insightful suggestions is that inheritance should be more widely shared.

However, individual daily reparations may be good on a one-to-one basis and no doubt, a person helped is a person helped, but these actions are also as arbitrary as they are ineffective to address the weight of an unjust past. I believe big structural changes need to happen within a set time period, but in the absence of suggestions, a coherent economic vision and ethical leadership there is always the Mugabe route: at least one sees things change. The fact that it changes for the worse for the majority, is immaterial, because the majority, at last, sees that things change.

From the Foreword: Another Country: Everyday social restitution (BestRed, 2016)