“Apartheid hasn’t ended. It’s still there, but in a subtle manner.” So says Mrs. Khumalo, an subject quoted in Bernadette Atuahene’s brilliant new book, “We Want What’s Ours: Learning from South Africa’s Land Restitution Program.” In the volume, Atuahene analyzes one of the most difficult and vexing post-apartheid problems in South Africa: land rights.
During the apartheid period, the country’s National Party government relocated millions of South Africans, forcing them off their property and into strictly segregated neighborhoods. The vast majority of victims of land theft in apartheid South Africa were black. Most readers will be very familiar with the forced relocation of black South Africans into townships like Soweto and Alexandra, but others may not realize that other South Africans, including coloreds (the apartheid-era term for persons of mixed-race ancestry), Indians, and even a few whites, were also forcibly relocated, most without fair compensation or legitimate reason.
Plenty of academic works have been written on the problem of land rights in South Africa, but Atuahene’s contribution is unique. She argues that, beyond the simple and (relatively) easy-to-establish loss of property, a tangible and quantifiable asset, South Africans who lost their property under apartheid also lost something equally, if not more important: their dignity. Atuahene characterizes this phenomenon as “dignity takings,” defined as “when a state directly or indirectly destroys or confiscates property rights from owners or occupiers whom it deems to be sub persons without paying just compensation or without a legitimate public purpose.”
In other words, losing land isn’t just about physical property; It also represents a theft of pride of ownership, stability, connection to community and one’s ancestors, and countless other forms of intangible loss. Moreover, state theft of property and dignity is based on dehumanization.
The question that logically follows frames the book: If dignity has been taken, can it be restored? As a legal scholar, Atuahene uses an ethnographic study of individual and family experiences with South Africa’s post-apartheid Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights, a government body created to compensate those whose land was stolen under apartheid through either financial compensation or the distribution of new property and housing.
While the commission’s purpose did not explicitly involve the restoration of dignity, Atuahene examines how the settlement process did or did not provide claimants with dignity restoration. Her efforts yield rich qualitative data into the lived experiences of South Africans struggling to restore what is rightfully theirs after decades of suffering the loss of property and dignity in the dehumanizing apartheid system.
Atuahene’s findings on are mixed. Structural defects–predicted by those who were involved in the commission’s creation–played a major role in subverting the overall effects of its restitution efforts. Only 80,000 out of an estimated 3.5 million land theft victims or their descendants filed claims by the government’s deadline. In other words, from the beginning, the vast majority of South Africans entitled to restitution were not participating in the process. Settling claims was a slow, bureaucratic nightmare for many, beset by a myriad of communication problems between an understaffed and under-equipped bureaucracy and frustrated claimants who could not get answers to their most basic questions.
Did the restitution program restore property theft victims’ dignity? Again, Atuahene finds mixed results. Some claimants received significant economic benefits. For others, the amounts of money paid were so small as to make little difference in their daily quality of life. For still others, the ability to buy a tombstone or being able to get new land close to that of their historic family lands made it possible to satisfy the needs of the ancestors, thereby restoring harmony and balance in the physical and spiritual realms of life.
Atuahene’s book is excellent. She explores an aspect of property rights that is too often ignored, but that is of particular importance in considering the full effects, physical and psychological, of systems of oppression. It is smart legal scholarship, written in accessible language that a non-specialist can easily understand.
What’s clear from Atuahene’s conclusions is that dignity restoration is a messy and difficult process. These difficulties are compounded when the task is carried out by bureaucracies with insufficient resources and communications skills. While South Africa’s land restitution program may have restored dignity for some of apartheid’s victims, the vast majority are still waiting.