A moral imperative

2011-06-08 00:00

YESTERDAY, I had a conversation with an extremely powerful man. It's not the first time I have spoken to him. As before, I was struck by his ordinariness. He is, to be sure, unprepossessing. He is a grey man outwardly, but far from colourless. You wouldn't notice him in a crowd. You would be unlikely to strike up a conversation with him in the lift. He dresses plainly but casually and he heads a vast, successful multi-continental commercial empire.

He is not afraid to give you his opinion and when he speaks, it is with the authority of a man who is not used to hearing the word "no". When he speaks, he uses examples from his personal experience. And the examples he uses are engaging and easy to understand. When he speaks, he demonstrates that he has thought about the subject matter carefully. He has reached a conclusion and he shares his wisdom easily, in an unfussy and unpretentious way.

The myths and legends about him are legion. Barely mention his name in the sphere of his influence and you will hear a story of his genius, his vision, his insight and his commercial courage. People quake visibly at the mere thought of his censure.

We were talking about why I had decided to move back into government, to do the job I will be doing for the foreseeable future — the job of restitution. I noticed, right from the start of our conversation, that his position, (which was entirely negative of the endeavour) was not an uninformed one. This is markedly different from many other white people who have shared their opinions with me on my move, recently. Most white people immediately mistake restitution for redistribution. The moment they hear the words "land claims" they assume the Robert Mugabe position. Why would I want to have anything to do with taking people's land away from them and giving it to others who are ill-equipped to run it?

Their lips curl. They bare their teeth at me and they snarl their disapproval. It matters nothing when I point out that apartheid did exactly what Mugabe is doing. It took land away from people who were its legal owners and, in most cases, did nothing to compensate them. But for these people what Mugabe is doing is wrong and it somehow wasn't wrong when the National Party did the same thing. (Or, if not that, then it is just ignored as a comparison.) They simply cannot hear the argument.

Not the man I was speaking to. He knows exactly what restitution is. He can cite precise examples. Nevertheless, he rejects it. He says it is (and this is a word I found really extraordinary) "immoral".

He says it is about the past, and South Africa should be about the future. He says that most of the people who suffered dispossession are dead. He acknowledges easily that what was done to them was terrible, but he says it is too late to compensate them. Even if one could quantify the damage done to them, it is unproductive to travel the path to restitution. He cites China and Japan as examples of forward-looking nations, where the past was the past and the future is the future. So, they simply started again from scratch. What happened, happened.

He gave an example of his own family sitting around the dinner table. His father would refer to a party which was taking place at the nearby farm owned by the Van der Westhuizens. "Now I hope," his father would say, "that none of my children will be seen at the Van der Westhuizen's party."

Why? Because during the Anglo-Boer War, it was the Van der Westhuizens' grandfather who pointed out to the British where the Boers were hiding.

It was a long time ago, and yet the fires were still burning. The hatred was still there. Let it all go,. he said. Why would you want to get involved in something like that, which can never be solved?

How convincingly I answered, I do not know. I said that this is the essence of the settlement. This is the reason we have peace, rather than blood in our country today. That was the deal. There will be no retribution, because there will be restitution.

If that position gets shifted, for whatever reason, whether it be because the claims are too difficult or too complicated or because there are competing interests or because "people should just move on and be done with it", then, in my opinion, the deal will collapse and the capitulation to commercial interests will be complete.

Not to mention the moral imperative. Not to mention the fact that people who were driven from their lands and their homes were raped emotionally and robbed of their dignity. Not to mention the effects it had on the children and their children after them. Restitution is the least that can be done. And white people in this country, in my opinion, should keep very quiet about Mugabe, when we still have our own tragic history to deal with first.

It is all very well, and not a little disingenuous, to say "forgive and forget", when the person urging everyone to do so is still reaping the not inconsiderable benefits of our inequitable, distorted past. The past is not the past. The past is still with us. It won't disappear because we might like it to, or because it would be easier if it were buried. It is with us and it will be for a long time to come.

• Michael Worsnip is the Land Claims Commissioner for the Western Cape.

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