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Country of my skull

13 October 2018

Country of my skull

I’m reading this 20 years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa submitted its report to the president, so it’s a bit late. Several people have mentioned this book to me, and I’ve been told it is the definitive book on the TRC, so when I saw it in the library I thought I’d better read it.

I was going to write that this was a journalist’s view and experience of the TRC, but after reading five chapters I’m not so sure. A journalist is supposed to make sense of events for readers, to give an ordered account that helps the reader to see what happened, but this is a disordered jumble.

There are no people here, only victims and perpetrators, commissioners and lawyers, in a confused jumble of fragmented slivers of events. There are perpetrators drinking beer while their victim’s body slowly burns on a fire. There is a father searching for any tiny fragment of his three-year-old son blown up by a landmine. And while I’m reading this other perpetrators are hunting other victims, maybe sitting half a world away from them steering a drone like a teenager playing a video game,

How can one call such a jumble of fragmentary impressions “truth”? And where is reconciliation? Maybe further on perpetrators will come face to face with victims, and there will be reconciliation, but let’s face it, most of the victims are dead, bodies burnt to ash or blown to smithereens. The TRC dealt only with gross human rights violations, which means that most of the victims are dead. The lesser violations that left more survivors who could be reconciled weren’t covered.

But I read on, hoping to see more.

At the end I had to conclude that as a record of the findings of the TRC it is rather disjointed and confusing. There are lots of out-of-context accounts of atrocities that give a vivid picture of the nasty things that people will do to each other in pursuit of a political aim or idea, or perhaps just because of general nastiness and sadism. And the accounts show the effects on those who suffered as a result. But there is not enough context given to give a coherent picture. I would therefore say that it fails as journalism, if the aim was to help people understand the history of what happened, of the events that the TRC was investigating.

It does, however, tell somewhat more about the effects that hearing of these atrocities had on the people who heard about them, including the journalists themselves. In that sense it is rather introspective. So it’s not the story of South Africa, but rather the story of the story. To the extent that the TRC itself is part of the story of South Africa, I suppose it is part of the wider story, but perhaps I was expecting too much.

One of the perpetrators of atrocities says, “When I drove back in the mornings after an operation and people passed me on their way to work, I thought I did it for you and for you… you could sleep safe and sound because I was doing my job.”

The chilling word, for me, is “operation”.

It’s a bit like the “collateral damage” that we were to hear about a few years later.

But what bothers me about this book is that we are told stuff like this, but we are told next nothing about the nature of these “operations”. Yes, we are told that someone was horribly tortured and eventually killed, and and that the people who did it thought that that enabled other people to sleep safe and sound. But who ordered the “operation”? Who planned it? What did they intend to achieve by it? We are told little or nothing about the events leading up to these things.

In one chilling account Krog tells of an ANC death list submitted to the TRC. She reads it with a fellow journalist who finds his brother’s name on the list. Died in Angola. He didn’t know that. The family didn’t know that. The first thing he hears about it is when the ANC applies for amnesty for it. But we are told no more. Where is the truth? What is the truth of his brother’s death? What was he accused of? Was he tried? Was he found guilty? We are not told. Was the “truth” commission told, or did they just grant amnesty on the basis of a lot of names on a list? We catch a brief glimpse of a person, the brother of a name on a list. But the name on the list is just a victim, not a person.

The oldest person to testify to the TRC is William Matidza, born in 1893. He doesn’t care that his house and furniture and livestock were confiscated, but he wants his trees back.

Trees? Trees? What trees?

Krog is a journalist. She reported on the TRC from beginning to end. Surely she must know that the reader wants the story and the journalist must be able to tell it. But she doesn’t. How did he lose his house and furniture? And his trees? Who took them? When? Where? Why? How? What happened to Kipling’s serving men?

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