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Reviewed by:
  • Another Country: everyday social restitution by Sharlene Swartz
  • Anye-Nkwenti Nyamnjoh (bio)
Sharlene Swartz (2016) Another Country: everyday social restitution. Cape Town: Best Red, HSRC Press

In Another Country, Swartz addresses the problem of racial injustice in South Africa. As a result of unjust legacies of the past, South Africa is a very unequal society in terms of economic and status hierarchies, each having a strong racial component. The central question, therefore, is how this past, along with its historical and contemporary consequences, can be transformed into something good that restores dignity, opportunity, belonging and memory.

The author offers social restitution as a conceptual and pragmatic framework within which these possibilities of transformation in South Africa are explored. Restitution herein, is defined as the actions and attitudes that make good again the damage done to our individual and collective personhood (246). The notion of personhood grounds the morality of restitution through two claims: (1) injustice damages our individual and collective personhood. It is something that affects us all. Herein, there is a tacit appeal to self-interest as a basis for moral action; (2) at the same time, this is not self-interest in a narrow individualistic sense. Swartz also appeals to an understanding of personhood as socially emergent. Here, as an ontological point, we are called upon to abandon fantasies of absolute autonomy and recognise the permanence of relations of debt and indebtedness (Nyamnjoh 2017). Because we are constituted by the relationships we are enmeshed in, we have moral obligations to honour them. In order to restore personhood, restitution is implicated in a theory of change whereby South Africans are exhorted to ‘Know, See, Feel, Locate and Act’ (57). Swartz contends that knowledge, seeing [End Page 146] clearly, feeling and self-location in narratives of injustice are necessary and sufficient to create at the very least a desire to act to disrupt injustice. South Africans, especially white South Africans, are encouraged to educate themselves about past injustice and its effects in the present and act against it. As such, Another Country reflects an understanding of change as a relationship between knowledge and action, between moral cognition and moral action.

Although the book appears to be primarily directed at white South Africans in these calls for self-education on our history of injustice, the audience remains all South Africans. This is because for Swartz, the gap between moral cognition (knowing) and moral action (acting) is bridged through dialogue. As argued within the text, everyday acts of social restitution are produced through intergroup dialogue aimed at producing consensus on what is possible. Dialogue is a check against reducing restitution to charity, or carrying it out in ways that perpetuates oppression by reinforcing unequal relationships of power.

The potential of social restitution as a resource in mobilising for social justice is developed by the author in conversation with 60 South Africans across the boundaries of race, class and gender, elicited through semi-structured interviews. The book comprises of ten chapters divided across four parts. Chapter 1 outlines the hopes for restitution and its urgency. The author maintains that most South Africans are actually united in that they have a common vision for what the post-apartheid future should look like (nonracialism, wellbeing broadly defined). The chapter also describes what the government has done to overcome the legacy of apartheid as an obstacle to these integrated visions, discussing the TRC, affirmative action, land reform, and land redistribution. In this discussion, we find an appreciation of not only where we want to go, but what we have done to get there so far, and their limitations. Restitution is further shown to be urgent because South Africans project an ominous and apocalyptic future in its absence, with war and revolution likely to result from intensified social conflict.

Despite the common vision for South Africa described in chapter 1, chapter 2 argues that there is deep polarisation regarding how South Africans perceive the past and the responsibilities and obligations that emerge from one’s connection to this past. While there exists a common vision, South Africans are conflicted about how to realise it. In particular, South Africans are polarised around the relevance of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1726-1368
Print ISSN
0258-7696
Pages
pp. 146-152
Launched on MUSE
2018-09-20
Open Access
No
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