Land restitution shows complex picture

By Drum Digital
26 July 2012

Financial compensation for land restitution was mostly well spent, despite misgivings by the Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights, a report has found.

In about 30 percent of the cases, the restitution award did produce "a substantial economic benefit".

"The majority of these people spent their financial award on improving their current homes, thus increasing the value of their primary assets," Princeton professor Bernadette Atuahene writes.

Atuahene compiled the report, "Paying for the Past: Addressing Past Property".

Increasing the value of a home was something that could also be passed along to future generations, as it could be inherited. The improvements could also be used for additional income.

There was also a consistent emotional component towards those using their awards for home improvements.

"The home improvements served as a memorial to their parents and other family members who were devastated by the evictions but did not live long enough to receive compensation," Atuahene writes.

Whether financial compensation had a substantial impact on the recipients depended heavily on the size of the compensation.

Those who were able to make the most use of the money received much larger awards on the average, about R127,000.

This is in contrast to the 32 percent of the cases where there was a moderate economic impact and in 38 percent of cases there was only a small economic impact to the recipients. In those cases, the average financial compensation averaged R48,700 and R23,400 respectively.

Only about 16 percent of those who received awards of less than R20,000 also enjoyed a substantial economic benefit.

Atuahene writes that some of the recipients spent it on their daily needs while others on non-essentials. Those persons said the amounts were so little, in one case R800, that they could not imagine what else to spend it on.

Atuahene singles out another expense that many took up, sometimes regardless of the size of the compensation package: what she calls "cultural investments" -- tombstones.

Many of the recipients interviewed were the descendants of the people originally dispossessed by the apartheid government. Using the money for tombstones was a way of honouring those who had lost their land.

Atuahene writes that despite the successes of financial compensation, many commission officials had a dim view of their own work, according to anecdotal information. Some believe the compensation is wasted because the money is gone but the recipients are still living in poverty.

She quotes one official as saying: "Financial compensation is not having an effect. We will assist with payment in the morning, and in the evening everyone is in the bottle store. They don't know what to do with the money."

As a result of this view, Atuahene notes the commission has shifted its focus from financial compensation and is now emphasising land transfer. She argues that the commission should reconsider its new emphasis.

"Since the commission has proven it has limited capacity to transfer land, it must find ways to make financial compensation more effective," Atuahene said.

She argues that the commission should offer more options for potential recipients. As an example, if the commission wants to promote home improvements, and a person is entitled to a R20,000 financial award, they should instead be given the option of a R30,000 voucher for building materials.

The commission could offer similar bonuses if they, and the recipients, wanted to use their financial awards for education or job training.

They should also provide financial counsellors to help claimants choose between their different options.

"The key is to give beneficiaries choice and to incentivise, not force them to use their financial awards in ways that [will] have a lasting economic impact," Atuahene writes.

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