South African peacemaker promotes restitution model focusing on housing, education and employment

Remnants of apartheid and wealth inequity still cast long shadows over country

July 28, 2015

Deon Snyman.

Deon Snyman.

LOUISVILLE

Although a country-wide referendum rejected apartheid as the law of the land in 1994, its injustices live on for many South Africans. Deon Snyman, a minister in South Africa’s Uniting Reforming Church, is also chief operating officer of the Restitution Foundation in Cape Town. He’s spent the last nine years developing and implementing a community-led restitution model where each community takes responsibility to make their town better for everyone to live in.

Deon is among several Christian leaders who will spend several weeks this fall traveling across the United States sharing experiences from their home country as part of the annual PC(USA) Peacemaking Program’s International Peacemakers series. The initiative gives Presbyterians first-hand insight into struggles faced by Christians abroad.  This year, peacemakers will visit the U.S. from ten different countries including Congo, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Cuba, India, Iran and South Africa. There are also speakers who will focus on the plight of the Armenian people as 2015 marks the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian genocide.

“Many victims of our racist past are still living in poverty and are frustrated by the fact that the majority of people who benefited from the injustices of apartheid live very comfortable lives,” says Deon. “This is not conducive for a sustainable peace; our work at the Restitution Foundation centers on helping communities with housing, education and employment. We’re piloting a restitution model in Worcester that hopefully can be replicated in each South African town.”

The dictionary definition of restitution implies a quid-pro-quo payback arrangement, yet it goes much deeper for South Africans who lived under an apartheid regime for nearly 50 years but whose roots go back a century when the 1913 Land Act marked the beginning of territorial segregation. Restitution involves seeking payback for generations of inequality by engaging those who have benefited from the old system to re-invest in communities that are still suffering. Loss of land, money and life fall under the restitution umbrella, but the foundation’s model also includes intangible items such as dignity, sense of safety, self-worth, individual rights, and a sense of belonging to one’s country.

“The biggest challenges we face in South Africa are the huge socio-economic inequalities between the rich and poor,” says Deon. “It’s a major challenge to sustainable peace and is complicated by the perception that the wealth in our country is still primarily in the hands of the white businesses and the white community—who account for less than ten percent of the country’s population.”

South Africa is a wealthy country, but the wealth gap between its rich and poor is one of the biggest in the world. Most of the land ownership remains in the hands of the white minority. The country’s annual economic growth of two percent is not aggressive enough to bring down the high unemployment rate that plagues the country. It’s an economic recipe that, when paired with an ineffectual and often corrupt government, doesn’t provide much hope for people wanting to witness real change in their lifetime, according to Deon.

The overwhelming majority of South Africans consider themselves Christians, and the church is still considered one of the country’s most trusted institutions according to surveys. It was the church who played a major role in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid, and most churches adopted an approach of solidarity with the democratically elected government in 1994. However, that solidarity has seemingly come at a price.

“The solidarity approach softened the prophetic voice against socio-economic injustices perpetrated by the new government and its representatives,” says Deon. “But there is currently awareness within some church circles that the solidarity approach is not serving the interest of justice and a bolder approach that speaks truth to power is more in line with its prophetic responsibility.”

During his visit to the U.S. Deon will be speaking to church audiences about his work at the Restitution Foundation and the Worcester Hope and Reconciliation Project, with special focus on the development of community-led restitution interventions. He will also talk about his belief that restitution is a crucial element of South Africa’s reconciliation process and his personal journey of being born in the Afrikaner community that supported the apartheid ideology—and what ultimately influenced him to become an advocate for justice, restitution and reconciliation.

For information about the 2015 Peacemaker’s visits to the U.S., please visit the Peacemakers web page.