Adanna came into this world swaddled in apartheid’s indignities. Adanna’s father was a white farm owner and her birth mother was one of his African farm hands. When Adanna’s birth mother died, her father abruptly dropped her off in Kliptown—a town about 35 kilometers from Johannesburg—to live with an African woman named Ma Zwane and her son. That is the last time either Adanna or Ma Zwane laid eyes on the man. Ma Zwane eventually adopted Adanna and she became a full-fledged member of the Zwane family.
Ma Zwane was a nurse. When looking at one of her pictures you see a middle-aged woman, lips full with pride, smooth dark skin impervious to the wrinkles time etches. Although the South African apartheid state made it especially difficult for Africans to own property in the cities, Ma Zwane was unbowed. She saved her modest earnings and eventually purchased two properties in Kliptown. Her properties brought in a steady stream of rental income and also earned her respect and social standing among her neighbors in Kliptown—a tight knit, cosmopolitan community where Africans, Indians, Chinese, whites, and coloureds lived side by side.
Ma Zwane dreamed that Adanna would one day secure an education that could shield her from the physical and mental violence that apartheid heaped on people kissed by the sun. So, when Adanna finished standard eight (grade 10), Ma Zwane enrolled her in a commercial course where she learned shorthand and typewriting. Unfortunately, despite her education and specialized training, Adanna’s brown skin prevented her from advancing. “I could not get a job because at the time they were not hiring non-whites in the offices to do all that, and as a result there was nothing else I could do but go to the factory.” As the dreams Ma Zwane wove for Adanna began to unstitch, she prayed that the properties could provide Adanna with the extra layer of protection that she so desperately needed as a black woman living under South Africa’s apartheid regime. But, after Ma Zwane died in 1955, Adanna’s life began to unravel.
To execute its white supremacist agenda of subordination and separation, in 1963, the South African apartheid government proclaimed that only Europeans could inhabit Kliptown. Soon after, the government uprooted Adanna and her neighbors and relocated them to townships designated for their specific racial and ethnic groups. After forcing Adanna and her brother to move to Soweto (the township designated for Africans), the government demolished the two properties that they inherited from Ma Zwane and gave them only nominal compensation. With a heavy heart Adanna observed, “when you own something, you feel proud that you have got something. But, when they take that away from you, feel naked. . . . You feel as if you are stripped naked. You are nothing.” (Confidential interview, Gauteng, South Africa (2008).) The bulldozers that razed Kliptown did not just demolish physical buildings, they destroyed Adanna’s vibrant community, stole her inheritance, and denied her dignity. Most importantly, the destruction and relocation were part of the apartheid regime’s strategy to subjugate blacks and cement their position as sub-persons in the polity.
South Africa is not the only nation where one group of people has subjugated another and stripped them of their property and dignity. Other examples include the Nazi confiscation of property from Jews during World War II; the US expropriation of Japanese property during their internment; the Hutu taking of property from Tutsis during and after the genocide; the US, Canadian, and Australian commandeering of native peoples’ property; the European usurpation of property from native peoples during colonialism and apartheid; Idi Amin’s banishment of people of Indian descent from Uganda and the confiscation of their property; and Saddam Hussein’s seizing of property from the Kurds in Iraq.
The list is long, but when the wars stopped, apartheid and colonialism fell, the dictatorships ended, and the genocides halted, the governments that emerged from the ashes had to navigate the perilous landscape surrounding the return of land and other property to displaced or decimated populations. These nations had a choice: they could ignore the fact that people were deprived of their property, or they could address it. Many states addressed past property dispossession by providing a remedy. A comprehensive remedy, however, addresses the full spectrum of damage done by the dispossession.
In certain instances, the damage is extensive because the dispossession is part of a larger strategy to further subjugate a certain group within the polity by denying their humanity or their capacity to reason. This type of dispossession is what I call dignity takings, which is when a state directly or indirectly destroys or confiscates property rights from owners or occupiers who it deems to be sub-persons without paying just compensation or without a legitimate public purpose. Dignity restoration is a comprehensive remedy that compensates people for the physical assets confiscated while also addressing the dignity deprivations involved.
International law and most programs aimed at remedying past property seizures have focused on reparations rather than dignity restoration. (See Atuahene, “From Reparation to Restoration…,” 60 SMU Law Review 1419 (2007); Scott Leckie, “Housing and Property Issues for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons…,” 19 Refugee Survey Quarterly 5 (2000).) Reparations is “the right to have restored to them property of which they were deprived in the course of the conflict and to be compensated appropriately for any such property that cannot be restored to them.” (United Nations, Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (1996).) While reparations involve reimbursement for the property taken, dignity restoration is based on principles of restorative justice and thus seeks to rehabilitate the dispossessed and reintegrate them into the fabric of society. As John Braithwaite states, restorative justice is interested in “restoring property loss, restoring injury, restoring a sense of security, restoring dignity, restoring a sense of empowerment, restoring deliberate democracy, restoring harmony based on a feeling that justice has been done, and restoring social support.” (“Restorative Justice…,” 25 Crime and Justice 1 (1999).) When reparations and restorative justice are married, dignity restoration is the offspring of this formidable union.
Most states that have addressed past property violations have not undertaken dignity restoration because it is a more time-consuming, complicated and expensive remedy than reparations. South Africa’s colonial and apartheid era land dispossessions are a quintessential example of dignity takings, and the post-apartheid government is unique because it has tried to move beyond reparations to facilitate dignity restoration. It understood its land restitution program as an opportunity to restore wealth as well as dignity to its black citizens. (See South Africa’s Department of Land Affairs Annual Report, 2001–2002 (2002).) Using the South African land restitution process as a case, the central question that the book considers is: when there has been a dignity taking, what does dignity restoration require?
The primary data source was 141 in-depth, semi-structured interviews of people from Johannesburg, Cape Town and surrounding areas who participated in the South African land restitution program. In addition, the book relies on secondary sources such as government documents, books, newspapers and academic articles; 26 semi-structured interviews of officials working for the South African land claims commission; and participant observation I conducted while occupying an office in the Central Land Claims Commission in Pretoria in 2008.
Part I of the book introduces and defines the book’s first central concept—dignity takings. Using insights from social contract theory, the first chapter develops the theoretical framework for dignity takings. To demonstrate empirically how dignity takings unfolded in South Africa, the second chapter uses respondents’ accounts of their lives before the forced removals and how the apartheid state displaced them from their homes and property. The central finding is that dignity takings in South Africa involved deprivations of wealth, agency and community.
Part II of the book introduces and defines the book’s second central concept, dignity restoration, and investigates whether or not the South African land restitution process facilitated it. In the third chapter, interviews of commission employees provide their perspective of how the restitution program was supposed to operate in theory and how it actually worked in practice. This perspective is counterpoised with a description of how the process worked based on interviews of respondents, who each went through the land restitution process. Two stories emerge from this double-sided analysis. One story is about how the ever-looming deadline to finalize all the claims impaired the commission’s ability to effectively address the deprivations of wealth, agency and community. The other story is about how dispossessed people were often overwhelmed and unable to smoothly navigate their way through the complicated restitution process because they did not have the financial resources, knowledge, networks, or assistance from civil society organizations necessary to hold the commission accountable when it was not acting in their interest or strictly in accordance with the relevant laws.
The fourth chapter explains why a sustained conversation between commission officials and respondents increased the state’s capacity to address deprivations of wealth, agency and community and thereby facilitate dignity restoration. Unfortunately, the communication strategy adopted by the commission was susceptible to communication breakdowns that obstructed these important conversations. Since there were about 80,000 claims filed, respondents who had the power to demand the attention of commission officials had their voices heard while those who could not were silenced.
The fifth chapter explores the ways in which the restitution awards affected respondents’ wealth and dignity. It describes the circumstances under which the restitution awards increased respondents’ net worth. The chapter then explores how respondents created meaning by using the awards in ways that they felt honored those who suffered dignity takings, but died before they received justice.
The book concludes by moving the discussion from the South African case back to the global stage. While history is replete with instances where communities and individuals were subject to dignity takings as a result of war, political turmoil, dictatorships, or colonial regimes, when dignity takings occur in the future, international organizations, bureaucrats, policy makers, NGOs and intellectuals can use the South African experience to shed light on how to facilitate dignity restoration. ■