Paying for the Past: Redressing the Legacy of Land Dispossession in South Africa


  • Bernadette Atuahene

  • The author wishes to thank the American Bar Foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations for their generous financial assistance; the South African Land Restitution Commission for its gracious cooperation in data collection; and Traci Burch, Joseph Doherty, Cesar Rosado, and Susan Shapiro for their extremely valuable comments and criticisms. Please address correspondence to Bernadette Atuahene, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology, 565 W. Adams St., Chicago, IL, 60661; e-mail:


The constitution of South Africa mandates equitable redress for individuals and communities evicted from their properties during colonialism and apartheid. The Commission on Restitution of Land Rights' institution-wide assumption is that the financial awards given as equitable redress had no long-term economic impact on recipients because the money is gone and they are still in poverty, whereas if people had received land, the economic impact would have been lasting. Consequently, in recent years, the commission has adopted a policy of using its soft power to force claimants to choose land restitution instead of financial awards. However, the interviews I conducted with financial award recipients show that in 30 percent of the cases, the award did produce a long-term economic benefit because respondents invested in their homes. This empirical evidence suggests that the commission should rethink its recent shift in policy and not totally discount the potential of financial awards to produce a lasting economic benefit.