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Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice at the Book Lounge

Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice Launched at The Book Lounge
from BookSA

The launch of Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice: Perspectives on Land Claims in South Africa edited by Cherryl Walker, Anna Bohlin, Ruth Hall and Thembela Kepe was one of those events that one wished could be expanded into an extended discussion – a conference, say.

In fact it was a conference where the seeds of this collection of essays was sown, and re-created in miniature at the launch. The lower floor of The Book Lounge was filled to capacity by those who needed no persuasion about the relevance of engaging with the issues presented in the book.

Director of the Foundation for Human Rights and former TRC commissioner, Yasmin Sooka, commenced the proceedings by saying it gave her great pleasure to reflect on this important topic, “the third pillar of the transitional justice process in South Africa.”

Sooka said that in 1994, the country adopted a model of transitional justice that was based on restorative justice. She said emphasis had been placed on truth, justice and accountability as a means of addressing human rights violations of the past and restoring human dignity.

“The State, emerging from gross violations of human rights cannot escape its past; it has to address these through mechanisms that allow for reparation. SA’s negotiated transition provided for the establishment of a truth commission, a constitutional process, hailed globally as a phenomenal triumph in its own right, and it provided for land restitution, that was intended to address the historical land disposition of the people.”

Sooka’s address did not refrain from criticism. She pointed to the spectre of Zimbabwe and cautioned all present to hold that dear. She warned about the poverty in the rural areas that increasingly made SA’s rural population a group of internally displaced persons. She highlighted food security as a real issue – and the changing face of the corporate world. “No longer do we have only white land owners. We also have black land owners, who are in charge of mining and the environment. And they are not doing any better than whites!”

She reminded the audience that they were acting as custodians for the next generation, urging them to grapple with these questions. She confessed: “I don’t know what answers are, but this book is very inspiring because doesn’t only focus on what went wrong. It contains stories of fortitude, collaboration and partnerships. It is an incredible collection for South Africa.”

Co-editor, Cherryl Walker, is Professor of Sociology in the University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Sociology and Sociol Anthropology. She reflected on of the strength of the book, which brings together the urban and rural dimensions of land restitution. “It’s important to understand both of these if you want to understand the programme in all its complexity. It’s not just about what happened in the countryside, but also about what happened in the city, with the Group Areas Act and influx control, and the intersection of these issues.”

She noted that The Book Lounge was right on the edge of District Six, “the empty space in the heart of Cape Town that has become normalised.” She said there were challenges that came with dual agendas that are separate and yet, intertwined. “This topic is not sufficiently appreciated. It’s thought of as a rural issue, but it’s also an urban land issue, and it’s vital to understand the relationship. The book brings these issues together and tries to show linkages and how they impact on restitution programme.”

Ruth Hall, another of the editors, is a senior researcher at PLAAS, the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Reform, based at UWC. She asked questions about what constitutes success in terms of land restitution. She pointed out that a lot of debate had focused on economic dimensions, changing class relations, and economic transformation. “But there are important symbolic elements too. The book is an attempt to bring together a conversation around these things, to avoid oversimplification and polarisation of the issue.”

According to Hall, a starting point must move beyond merely settling claims by way of ticking off boxes. “One must ask whether those who’ve accepted cash compensation consider whether justice has been done. One must look at the counter claims of those who are poor but not claimants. One must look at experiences of NGOs who work with communities where delayed settlement have led to people choosing to ignore official proscriptions in favour of more sensible options. One must look at the complexity of restoring rights in the process of development.”

A question and answer discussion followed with pertinent questions and vigorous debate. As mentioned above, this was an evening that could so easily have expanded into a three-day conference!

Photos of the event on Facebook

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