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Activists stage a protest.
Activists mark National Reparations Day in Washington, D.C., on July 1, 2019. Alex Wong/Getty Images

What the US can learn from Africa about slavery reparations

The House Judiciary Committee voted on April 14, 2021, to recommend the creation of a commission to study the possibility of paying reparations to the descendants of enslaved people in the United States.

The measure, H.R. 40, would establish a 15-person commission to offer a “national apology” for slavery, study its long-term effects and submit recommendations to Congress on how to compensate African Americans.

Any federal reparations bill faces long odds of being enacted due to Republican opposition, but this is the furthest this effort has advanced since a similar bill was first introduced over 30 years ago.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat from Texas, who introduced H.R. 40, called it a needed step on the “path to restorative justice.”

As the U.S. debates reparations for descendants of U.S. slavery, looking to Africa might help clear a path forward, according to my research on African history and the African diaspora.

South Africa’s incomplete reparations

In the U.S. and globally, arguments for reparations mostly revolve around financial restitution.

But a closer examination of the actual reparations efforts illustrates the limits of programs solely focused on financial restitution.

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela and his ruling political party, the African National Congress, created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 upon coming to power. The commission investigated human rights crimes during nearly five decades of apartheid, the system of legislation that upheld segregationist laws and perpetrated racist violence.

The commission also established a reparations program, recommending in its 2003 final report that victims of apartheid receive roughly US$3,500 over six years.

But the commission stipulated that only those who had testified to the commission about apartheid’s injustices – about 21,000 people – could claim reparations. Some 3.5 million Black South Africans suffered under apartheid rule.

Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, issued the one-time $3,900 payments in 2003. South African governments have since made no additional payments to those who testified or other apartheid victims.

Nor have any post-Mandela governments put the perpetrators of the apartheid system on trial. The power structure that upheld apartheid has remained largely undisturbed.

South Africa is the world’s most unequal society, according to the World Bank. Whites make up the majority of wealthy elites while half of the Black South African population lives in poverty.

Dismissing the wider social and economic damage caused by apartheid – high-income inequality, unreturned lands seized by whites, poor community infrastructure – has kept millions who suffered violence from qualifying as victims. They may never see reparations.

An anti-apartheid demonstration in South Africa.
An anti-apartheid demonstration in Soweto, South Africa in 1989. Lily Franey/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Sierra Leone’s underfunded effort

Around the same time that South Africa created its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the West African nation of Sierra Leone undertook a similar effort to confront the aftermath of its 10-year civil war.

Sierra Leone’s civil war, from 1991 to 2002, killed at least 50,000 people and displaced another 2 million. In 2004, its Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended reparation measures for survivors.

It recommended pensions, free health care and education benefits for amputees, those severely wounded, those widowed by the war and survivors of sexual violence.

Sierra Leone governments long ignored these recommendations, but in 2008 pressure from the country’s largest survivor organization, the Amputee and War-Wounded Association, and a $3.5 million grant from the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund restarted reparation efforts.

Instead of implementing the TRC’s more comprehensive reparation measures, however, the Sierra Leone government in 2008 provided each of the 33,863 registered survivors a single $100 payment. The UN later provided some small payments, loans and vocational training to other survivors in subsequent years.

After interviewing survivors of the Sierra Leone civil war, the nonprofit Peace Research Institute Frankfurt concluded in 2013 that Sierra Leone’s reparations program failed. It pointed to the high numbers of victims, limited funding and public health epidemics like Ebola that made reparations less a priority.

Reparations through the courts

In other African countries, survivors of colonial atrocities have sought redress through the courts.

In 2013, Kenyan survivors of British colonial atrocities brought a legal suit to the British high courts demanding reparations. The British government recognized “that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration” and agreed to pay £19.9 million – $27.6 million – in compensation to some 5,000 elderly survivors.

But the government stalled payments, and Kenyans later demanded more than what was offered.

A similar court case in Germany demanding reparations for the Germans’ 1904-1908 massacre of the Herero people in colonial Namibia remains contested. And negotiations over payments and other forms of redress continue.

Rethinking reparations through Africa

Groups representing African and Caribbean nations have offered alternative ways of thinking about the colonial slavery and racial violence driving such reparations efforts.

In 2019, the African Union – a regional policy body made up of 55 African countries – defined reparative justice as redress for “losses suffered” under any circumstances where human rights have been violated.

That includes financial reparations – its policy document emphasizes material support for rebuilding homes and businesses damaged by oppressive colonial regimes.

But it also called for member countries to think beyond money to consider reparations measures aimed at healing trauma and establishing broad social justice.

Much of the African Union’s thinking aligns with the Caribbean-based Caricom Reparations Commission’s 10-point reparation plan, established in 2013. It includes debt cancellation for Caribbean countries built on colonial slavery and the right of African descendants worldwide to return to an African homeland, should they wish to, via an internationally supported resettlement program.

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For these groups, reparations isn’t just about money – it’s a plea for collective restoration, to retrieve something on behalf people who lost their labor or life to powerful white governments and institutions.

Through slaving and colonial rule, Africa lost people. But the continent also lost skilled labor, creativity and innovations. Those benefits were transferred to colonial societies – and their recovery remains at stake for Africa and African descended people worldwide.

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