What is Restitution?

Restitution involves seeking to set right the generational ills of inequality by engaging those who have benefited from the systems of colonialism and apartheid, directly or indirectly, in transferring wealth and social capital and reinvesting in communities that are still suffering.

The word “restitution” means to restore something lost or stolen to its proper owner or to recompense or compensate for injury or loss. We normally hear it used in a legal sense where it refers to ‘paying back’ or ‘making things right’ for wrongs previously committed. However, even in courts we recognise that some wrongs can never be made right, for example murder or torture. When considering historical injustice, thinking about restitution forces us to recognise that loss includes both tangibles - such as land - and intangibles - like dignity, a sense of safety or self, and opportunity - compounded over generations. For this reason, we speak about “social restitution” as a project encompassing more than just legal redress.

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Why does restitution matter?

It is only possible for people to live in real peace with each other when the root causes of a conflict are addressed. Peace in South Africa will remain fragile as long as the root causes of colonialism and apartheid remain unaddressed, with levels of inequality still deeply entrenched and starkly raced and the wounds of injured humanity evident in all sectors of society.

Restitution speaks about confronting the root causes and actively deciding what needs to be done to address it. While restitution in South Africa includes the problem of land and socio-economic redress, restitution ultimately aims at restoring dignity, a sense of belonging and all our humanity.

Who is the Restitution Foundation?

The Restitution Foundation, a Cape Town based NGO, was established in 2003 in response to broader South African society not having taken up a restitution responsibility for the human rights abuses of colonialism and apartheid. It recognised that the transition to democracy called for citizen-led restitution to “level the playing field” alongside state-level redress measures (including the repeal of racist laws and enactment of law aimed at facilitating redress in land, employment and reconciliation). The organisation’s vision is to be a catalyst for broader social restitution that can lead to healing in South Africa.

What does the Restitution Foundation offer you?

The Restitution offers theoretical tools to strengthen the understanding of what restitution is and practical models to assist in the doing of restitution.

The recent public outcries on racist behaviour and the radical approaches to enforce social justice are but a few examples that South Africa’s painful history is still experienced in the present.

More than three centuries of racist colonial and apartheid rule caused enormous black suffering and human rights abuse. The same racist policies benefited white South Africans to enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world.

The outpouring of black rage and anger about the persistent largely racially based inequality within the society is but an indication that the 1994 democratic elections were only a ceasefire and not a peace treaty.

Antjie Krog in her forward to the book Another Country: Social Restitution (Swartz, 1996) writes about this anger: “… there are black people who have the desire to see Whites impoverished, humiliated and depending for their own basic need on the whim and mercy of Black people. There are times that it seems as if some black people desire a French revolution scenario: to move into deserted houses of the rich, run through their enormous gardens, mess in their pools and experience physical revenge by spilling blood”. Krog further argues that the pain and anger of black South Africans are “underpinned by yearning never again to live the vulnerable life of dread, anxiety, poverty and oppression” suffered under colonialism and apartheid”.

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At the recent state funeral of struggle icon, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa linked black anger about the lack of real socio-economic transformation with the unhealed historical wounds. He said “We must acknowledge that we are a society that is hurting, damaged by our past, numbed by our present and hesitant about our future. This may explain why we are easily prone to anger and violence”.

Peace Researchers highlights that sustainable peace will only be possible after the root causes for the South African conflict are addressed. The Restitution Foundation is of the firm belief that restitution serves as a vehicle to address these root causes.

The word restitution has three meanings: (i) to restore something lost or stolen to its proper owner (ii) to recompense or compensate for injury or lost (iii) to recompense or compensate for injury or lost.

Within the South African context restitution means that white people must do something to address the wrongs of colonialism and apartheid.

A recent survey undertaken by the HSRC highlights the major fault line in the restitution discourse: Most of the white segment of the South African population strongly feels that they have no responsibility to do restitution.

Ramaphosa’s address provides a possible answer for this disassociation: “It is only when you experience the real pain yourself that you can recognise it in others and offer comfort”.

This denial from white people indicates a lack of understanding of the suffering caused by colonialism and apartheid and the role white people played in the suffering.

Much restitution advocacy work is still required.


Since its inception the Restitution Foundation developed theoretical and practical models to assist in deepening the understanding of why restitution is necessary, what restitution is and what it is not and how it could be done. It also provides guidelines to different spheres in life where restitution is required. These restitution resources are now available on the Restitution Foundation Website.
The Restitution Foundation trusts that the Restitution Resources will become an important tool that will facilitate restitution transformation.
The organisation is aware that our work is work in progress and we do not claim to provide final answers. In the celebration of our work, the Restitution Foundation is mindful of Krog’s sentiment that “it is important that black South Africans decide what restitution white South Africans should do” and not the other way around. It is therefore important for white people to connect with the wounds of their black compatriots to appreciate the pain and thereafter respond with appropriate restitution actions.

Prof Sharlene Swartz
Chairperson, Restitution Foundation
8 October 2018
Cape Town

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