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In the early days of SA’s democracy the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that while the degree of involvement varied, most businesses carried responsibility for the ills of apartheid because they benefited from operating in a racially structured environment.

The commission proposed that wealth taxes be considered as appropriate restitution for business. The proposal for business to carry a restitution responsibility signified a turn away from focusing on individual fault to a structural analysis that drew a link between benefiting from a system and moral culpability for it.

However, the suggestion remained only that, and with a few notable exceptions SA business did not take it seriously. It has been 25 years since the TRC asked this sector to step up, and the past week marked roughly three months since unrest in parts of SA left over 300 people dead and caused billions of rand in damage to the economy — the cost most visibly hitting business. We reflect on these moments together, as echoes of the unrest reiterate the call for restitution.

By now it is accepted that the violence and looting that tore through parts of SA in July had multiple causes, among them unprecedented levels of unemployment and widespread loss of income during the Covid-19 pandemic directly affecting food security. S’bu Zikode, who leads SA’s largest movement for the urban poor, has been unequivocal in naming the unrest food riots.

National lockdown disrupted the informal economy, which saw our poorest families redirecting their limited money to more expensive retailers while prices of many basic staples and fresh vegetables increased. When our already fragile food system faced the shock of a global pandemic many families simply ran out of money to eat. Meanwhile, big business benefited, a visible symbol of surplus in every community.

This is the context that saw business targeted during the unrest and has had many battling to rebuild over the past three months. For some, that task has been easier — Pepkor recently reported that its insurance with Sasria was sufficient to cover the almost R1.3bn in damage sustained in its stores, and reported that loss in revenue for the company was offset by customers switching to other Pep or Ackerman’s outlets. For others (smaller entrepreneurs finding their way into the sector), however, rebuilding may never be possible.

While we may feel exhausted by the costs of this year, reflecting on what got us here demands that business hear the TRC’s call to take responsibility for restitution once more, while acknowledging that responsibility is not equally borne. 

Restitution involves seeking to set right the generational ills of inequality by engaging those who have benefited from the systems of colonialism and apartheid, directly or indirectly, in transferring wealth and social capital and reinvesting in communities that are still suffering. The word “restitution” means to restore something lost or stolen to its proper owner or to compensate for injury or loss.

When considering historical injustice, thinking about restitution forces us to recognise that loss includes both tangibles — such as land — and intangibles like dignity, a sense of safety or self and opportunity, compounded over generations. For business, a clear example of systemic benefit that causes harm is having been built on the back of what development economist Ayabonga Cawe called the “native reserve”.

Restitution is not charity; it is crucial to differentiate between the two. Nor is it corporate social investment. These may involve some form of transfer, but both differ from restitution in meaningful ways. Charity begins with the question “What can we do for the poor?” while restitution is grounded in answering “Is this our responsibility and why?” It entails a paradigm shift: recognising the need to give not out of magnanimity or because we have more than we need, but because people continue to suffer as a result of actions and policies in which we were complicit or from which we have directly or indirectly benefited.

For businesses with a longer history or those seeded from capital rooted in historic wealth and backed by privileged security, these links can be directly traced and contended with. From there, individual businesses can begin to shape a way forward, together with those to whom restitution is owed: often found among a company’s own employees. Unlike charity, a restitution process is highly relational, potentially costly, and long-term. It should affect your bottom line.

At the Restitution Foundation our work has been to explore models for how this can happen. The foundation has gone about its work with limited resources, seeking to make change at community level. However, the unrest in July reminded us that our voice must be a little louder, more present, less shy: we are not done with the work of the past; we must make right to move forward. Our organisation’s new vision is to mobilise business and youth towards a restitution movement for a just and hopeful society.

Why take this responsibility on? For one, because the events of 2021 prove that we have failed to build a viable society and our fragile social fabric will prove unable to support your business if you do not. The kind of inequality we face doesn’t simply address itself; it requires intentional redistribution and restitution to be overcome.

Big business needs to get involved and not leave civil society to mull away on its own with this issue. The business community must, as a matter of urgency, think about what restitution means for a company, its staff and the communities it operates in. n this particular place and time, restitution and all its sisters are a long overdue business imperative.

• Hazell is a popular educator for urban land justice NGO Ndifuna Ukwazi, and board member of the Restitution Foundation.


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