Where a wrong has been committed and relationships have broken down, there can be no healing without some restitution. This is basic to forgiveness, reconciliation and normalization of relationships. If there is to be peace and justice, restitution is a basic essential element both for the perpetrator and the victim.
In South Africa so many formerly (and presently) advantaged people are angry and distraught at the ongoing mention of the evils of apartheid and feel that apartheid is over, so why can South Africa not “forgive and forget”. On the other hand, so many former (and present) victims of apartheid feel that little has changed and that the heinous evil from which we are emerging is not understood or appreciated. How can one forgive and forget if little has really changed?
In the case of apartheid full and complete restitution (in the sense of restoring the former situation) is not possible. The same is true of slavery, colonialism, the industrial revolution and other evils that have changed the social, political, economic and spiritual environment in which we live. For example, in South Africa, the attempts for restitution through legal mechanisms for those people who were forcibly removed from their land through apartheid, tend to forget that forcible removal from the land does not only (and not even primarily) mean the loss of land. It entails the destruction of communities, of family life, of the ‘rootedness’ of people in their environment. It means also the loss of agricultural skills and experience as well as feelings of self-worth that flow from the experience of economic and social independence. So return of the land cannot be meaningful restitution in itself. It may potentially even add to the suffering of the victims to whom restitution has been made.
Perhaps this form of incomplete restitution is more important in giving the perpetrator a sense of righteousness and a feeling that forgiveness has been achieved – but for the victim there is not the sense that relationships have been corrected.
So restitution is essential as a basis for the restoration of justice and peace in South Africa but restitution in the sense of restoring what was before is not possible – so what is the way forward?
Certainly, some form of symbolic restitution can be helpful provided that it is properly understood both by perpetrator and by victim to symbolise genuine and deep contrition and the desire to make things right. But at the same time, we must be very careful not to go for a ‘quick fix’ so that we can feel better about the situation without really fixing it.
Fundamentally, the only restitution truly meaningful will be the establishment of a society that is based on principles of equality and justice – not only (and not even mainly) in the legal or political sphere, but especially economically, and socially.
At present society is run on the principle of the aggregation of the personal greed of individuals. This was the root cause of apartheid and colonialism in the past and it is the root cause of the injustices in the economic life of today. It is this that must be changed for real restitution to be effected. We need to move away from restoring only things to individuals and move towards working for a new order of peace through social and economic justice.
Is this pie-in-the-sky – will it ever be possible? Christian hope says “yes”. It is possible, it can be achieved. It will certainly take a change of attitudes and values, and a willingness to work tirelessly to that end in our own lives, in our institutions, and in our society and the world as a whole.