Reparations debate must begin anew

 

Brandon Hamber & Kamilla Rasmussen


Business Day, Friday 29 October 1999

 

A year has passed since the truth commission submitted its final report to the then president Nelson Mandela and the public. Unfortunately, other than the occasional amnesty report, a deafening silence prevails about what is to happen next.

 

The list of recommendations made by the TRC received passing reference in parliament then disappeared from the news. The most controversial component of the TRC's recommendations, the reparations policy, also seems to be slipping from the national agenda.

 

One of the sectors the commission called on to redress its past was business. It is indisputable that until the dying days of apartheid, the system continued to create an economic environment conducive to white economic advancement and unfavourable to black labour.

 

Should business pay for a reparations programme? Or more pragmatically, does the country have enough resources? And, what is government doing to facilitate this process?

 

There are no easy answers. But the lack of public debate so far means that the reparations process may be reduced to pragmatics before any principles have even been set. Step one in the process should be to establish whether survivors of violence have a right to reparation in the first place. To date, most South Africans and government have failed to even attempt to answer this question.

 

Reparations for those who suffered in the past, according to the TRC report, should include financial compensation and mechanisms from the erection of headstones to programmes for better access to social services. Internationally there is a growing recognition that reparations of this sort are integral to justice. Bodies such as the UN are advocating that compensation for victims of political and criminal violence should be legislated as a matter of course. South Africa lags hopelessly behind in these debates.

 

In South Africa, the rights of victims seem to be overruled by potential cost factors. There seems to be a covert accord between business and the government that any reparations programme would be too expensive. This is odd considering no substantial investigations, or research, into the issue has been undertaken by government or business.

 

The truth commission argues that the financial component of reparation alone, for those found to be victims, should be around R21 700 annually for each victim or their beneficiaries. With an estimated 22 000 victims being paid for a suggested six years, this would amount to R477 million a year, or close to 3 billion over the entire period. Currently, the responsibility to implement this, as well as the equally important symbolic mechanisms of reparation, rests with government.

 

The commission recognised the potential economic drain and made a number of suggestions on how to fund the process. These included: a wealth tax; a once-off levy on corporate and private income; listed companies making a once-off donation of 1 percent of their market capitalisation; a retrospective surcharge on corporate profits; the suspension of all taxes on land and other material donations to formerly disadvantaged communities; debt cancellation; and the utilisation of the South African Risks Insurance Association Fund as a source of funds.

 

These suggestions seem to have been written off before the debate about practicalities has even started. The commission's suggestions should provide a welcomed starting point for incorporating the business sector into the process of reconciliation. If South Africa is ever to move beyond its third world status, it is essential that the benefits of macroeconomic policies for the business sector are counterbalanced by social obligations.

 

The very least that victims of apartheid are owed is that the reparations issue is discussed publicly. Government must take a lead in that regard. A point of departure for business, and those who feel they owe nothing to those victimised in the past, should be to address three issues in a direct fashion:

 

v    Why do they feel they are morally exempt from making a contribution to any reparations programme.

 

v    They should address each of the commission's suggestions in detail, arguing why they feel they make no fiscal sense and can therefore be justly ignored; and

 

v    They should outline what it is they are currently doing to redress the imbalances of the past.

 

This process needs to be supported by government. Government has earmarked R300 million (at the time about 30 million) for the reparations process of which it has spent just R25 million. Eight thousand people have received about R3500 each as a so-called interim payment.

 

This is minuscule next to the funds spent on granting amnesty - and laughable in the face of some of the civil claims victims have forfeited in the name of furthering reconciliation.

 

A long term, substantial reparations programme seems a long way off. It would need to include financial compensation, symbolic measures like building memorials, and the assurance that victims get adequate social and medical assistance.

 

Surely government recognises that the current lack of debate about the granting of reparations to victims of political violence is nothing short of an embarrassment for South Africa, which is supposedly a champion of human rights. Not only were victims' rights to justice undermined by the amnesty provisions, but the lukewarm approach to reparations by all sectors in society, including the government, remains a constant reminder that human rights principles have barely taken root.

 

Brandon Hamber is a fromer programme manager and Kamilla Rasmussen an intern at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg.