Dr Sally John

The Restitution conference was held in the Cape Town Fort from 9 November 2016 to 10 November 2016 and was organized by the Restitution Foundation. It was well attended by many NGOs, academics and private individuals. Politicians were specifically excluded from the conference as the aim was for attendees to talk frankly to each other about their past suffering.

Restitution is a form of ‘making right’ that goes beyond reparation and physical recompense for the suffering of people in the past due to discrimination. It involves people from different cultures and backgrounds being able to talk honestly with each other about the past and state what would make a difference to their lives now. ‘Less tangible’ aspects of life such as ‘human dignity, common memories, opportunities and participation’ form part of restitution[1]. The thought was that honest dialogue rather than ‘lip service’ lays the groundwork for constructive changes to people’s lives.

The format of the conference was a panel of chosen people briefly addressing the attendees. Some of these were well known individuals such as Adv Thuli Madonsela and her daughter (Thuli was no longer a politician) and Mary Burton, national president of the Black Sash for many years. Also on the panels were notable clerics and young black academics who had achieved high education and recognition overseas and locally.

After the panellists addressed the crowd, group discussions were held. The results were then aired by individuals to all attendees. Especially voluble were Khoi San who pleaded for official government and public recognition as a culture, race and population group.

On the second day, various venues in the fort were opened and presentations of projects contributing towards restitution were given. For instance, the Worcester project was presented. In the town of Worcester, reformative justice through a restitution project was launched in the years after a person detonated a bomb in Shoprite Checkers on Christmas Eve 1996 killing 4 and leaving 67 people injured. Members of the Restitution Foundation put a long and hard process into effect to enable all members of the community to talk to each other and the ‘Worcester Bomber’ himself about their suffering and what changes were needed in the community to prevent another similar incident in the future. This person was actually at the conference. Several community initiatives such as a beading initiative were begun and beautiful beads from this project were being sold at the conference.

Other topics presented and discussed were land claims and needs of university students.

Attendees were guided around the fort and historical atrocities committed in the precincts were described.

I believe that most attendees would have found the openness of the conversations with each other to be moving, refreshing and informative. As a white person, I understood the feelings expressed against colonialism and apartheid and I felt privileged to talk to and listen to the heart-felt stories of others. The comment was made that this conference had a similar feel to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but employed different processes and effects.

The conference enabled an exploration of the fact that restitution is something that every South African needs to understand and put into effect to make a better society for the future.

[1] Reconciliation: A guiding vision for South Africa .EFSA Series: Ecumenical and Developmental Perspectives. (2013),  Burton, M., Solomons, D., Vellem, V., du Toit, F., St. Leger Hills, S. Ed., Ernst M. Conradie.ARICAN SUN MeDIA.

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