It is perhaps more appropriate to start with a lament on the manner in which the poor of South Africa have been betrayed. Neither the Peace Accord of the early nineteen nineties, nor the negotiated political settlement or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had delivered to the poor of the country. In fact, it would be fair to suggest that the most serious deficit of all these processes had been the sacrifice of justice on the altar of cheap reconciliation. Retrospectively we now know that the interests of neo-liberal capitalism in general and of the South African petit bourgeoisie, both black and white, in particular, were paramount. To suggest, however, that the betrayal of the poor was only political, is to indulge in reductionism of the worst kind. Religion in South Africa has got a lot to account for. Even before any form of serious national dialogue gets going, there should be an opportunity for faith based communities to express shame and to plead for forgiveness from the “sinned against”, namely the poor and the God of the poor.
In turning to the notion of restitution, it is perhaps important to engage the concept itself critically. A kind of “conceptual cleansing” might even be necessary. In the Catholic Encyclopaedia, for example, restitution is taken to be signifying “an act of commutative justice by which exact reparation as far as possible is made for an injury that has been done to another”. And further, “the grounds on which restitution becomes obligatory are either the possession of something belonging to another, or causing of unjust damage to the property or reputation of another”. There would off course be alternative interpretations of restitution, but an important question will be whether it is a helpful concept for the kind of process which seems to be emerging in South Africa pertaining to the redress of the socio-economic inequalities. The question needs to be posed: Does the concept not focus on a very narrow sense of justice that is legalistic, ignoring the bigger justice/injustice picture? Does the notion of restitution not come out of a mentality that supports the status quo? Is restitution not inadvertently and unintentionally perhaps, arising to from a protectionist tendency, i.e. to protect the interests of the wealthy as much as possible? A further question is whether restitution will be aimed at tackling the underlying system which has given rise to the huge discrepancies between the rich and the poor, however complex and difficult that may be, or will it degenerate into yet another delusion?
On a positive and constructive note: In what way should the contribution of theology and religion to the ongoing debate on restitution be theological or religious. In terms of a virtual subversion of the pertinent questions posed, I want to suggest the inducement of the vision of shalom, God’s shalom, which in the Bible is a condition of all-encompassing peace. It integrates a kind of spiritual well-being with material well-being. The vision of shalom can also quite easily be brought into a very creative discourse with the African philosophical concept of ubuntu. An indispensible dimension also, will be to keep justice and peace in creative tension to one another. In the Bible they operate as twin sisters or alternative as mother and daughter where mother justice gives birth to daughter peace.