Even on the carpet their booted feet make a noise. The black-clad Iron Guard of the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging are marching in. Swastikas on their arms, they are here to support their leader, Eugene Terre’Blanche, who is giving evidence at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Established to deal with issues of guilt, justice, and amnesty in the postapartheid era, and headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission is the ostensible subject of Afrikaner journalist Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull. Ostensible, because behind the grim depositions given to the commission, and recorded in this book, lie a public history and individual one— Krog’s own efforts to prize herself from the grip of race
logic and the emotional bond of her family.
As the AWB march in, the lens of public history focuses on Dr. Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, chief architect of apartheid as prime minister from 1958 to 1966. “This seat I am sitting in,” shouts Terre’Blanche, “is it the same one where Dr. Verwoerd was murdered with a knife in his heart thirty years ago?” “Indeed,” says the chairperson.
The incident raises just one of the many ghosts that people a lyrical, painful book. Krog later reveals that the bloodstain on the carpet kept reappearing years afterward, however much the authorities dry-cleaned it. It is a portent felt by others too: the fanatically zealous Dr. Verwoerd also figures in American David Goodman’s Fault Lines: Journeys Into the New South Africa, which gives an account of the country’s dramatic political transformation through the voices of interviewees. These include Verwoerd’s son— still a dyed-in-the-wool racist— and his estranged grandson, now a member of the ANC, as well as Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an ordinary domestic worker, and a farmer evicted from his lands.
Goodman’s is the less ambitious, if longer book, but for those unfamiliar with the country it will serve as a better primer. Krog, an important radio journalist in South Africa, is steeped in the politics and history of the situation she is reporting. This is obviously a boon with such contentious subject matter, but sometimes it means she asks too much of foreign readers in terms of language and scope of reference— despite the best efforts of the editors at Times Books to footnote and contextualize.
The strongest passages in Country of My Skull are those in which depositions are quoted verbatim. Here are two necessary, if gory, examples:
They [two policemen] held me . . . they said, “Please don’t go in there . . . ” I just skipped through their legs and went in . . . I found Bheki . . . he was in pieces . . . he was hanging on pieces . . . He was all over . . . pieces of him and brain was scattered all around . . . that was the end of Bheki.
At Caledon Square, I heard a loud sound. Policemen were celebrating. They said: “We’ve got Looksmart!” I was in my cell when I saw Looksmart being dragged up a flight of stairs by two policemen. They were beating him as he went up the stairs. I noticed that his beard had been pulled out . . . one by one . . . on one side of his face. He was bleeding heavily from the mouth.
It is difficult to read such passages without being caught up in the awful voyeurism that such a book inevitably entails. In less careful hands, the issues that surround these revelations would be obscured by sensationalism, but Krog is both delicate and forceful in this respect: delicate about the individual lives and deaths the book records, forceful about the need to make that record, however horrible it might be.
So what is to be the outcome— at a time when the commission is about to publish its report and remains the subject of political wrangling in South Africa? Should justice be dispensed, or is the free and fair airing of truth enough, in the hope that it will help build the new South Africa? “Crimes against humanity should be punished,” says Krog, citing the Nuremberg, Tokyo, and Chilean war crime trials as contexts. Others cite the Rwandan genocide: “Fewer people died under apartheid than were killed in Rwanda. So how bad could apartheid have been?” she asks herself, rhetorically.
Krog is careful to take account of the makeup of the commission: should its members “be representative of a type of morality, or do they need to represent gender, politics, race, province, language, and so forth?” In other words: “Which Afrikaners will be on the commission?” Can the truth be told when your identity is on trial? As the philosopher José Zalaquett, a member of the Chilean Truth Commission, has put it (paraphrased by Krog): “Identity is memory.” Such questions have great bearing on
the commission’s actual decisions, which in particular concern finding out the truth about government-sponsored, and indeed ANC-sponsored murders— and, most significant of all, secret “third force” killings
by whites and blacks associated with the apartheid regime.
One of the most shocking things about this book is the way it reveals how blacks were either coerced or took money to engage in harmful activities against other blacks. Another is the terrible proximity of domesticity and death: “While I poured water on the tea bags, I heard this devastating noise. Six men stormed into our study and blew his [the speaker’s husband] head off. My five-year-old daughter was present. . . . ”
Compared to this, Krog’s private struggle with her own Afrikaner inheritance— in particular her brothers’ armed attempts to defend their farm against raiders— is a little tame, but it does show how the forging of a new country on the steel of the past tempers everybody, from Dr. Verwoerd’s descendants to “the ordinary cleaning woman” who finds her voice on the radio news one lunchtime: “Someone fell from the upper floor past the window. . . . It was my child . . . my grandchild, but I raised him.”
The truth (“I hesitate at the word,” says Krog. “Even when I type it, it ends up as either turth or trth“) is viewed from a more oblique angle in Goodman’s book, as longer, more-intensive interviews try to get to the
heart of what has happened in South Africa over the past half century. The interviews with the Verwoerd family are particularly interesting, as are the details
concerning the assassination of their Nazi-sympathizing ancestor. The “culprit” was a half-Greek, half-African immigrant from Mozambique, Dmitrio Tsafendas, who stabbed Verwoerd while working as a parliamentary messenger. At the time, he claimed that a giant tapeworm in his body had ordered him to kill Verwoerd, and he was accordingly committed to a mental institution; recently he has said that his own racial persecution at school— where he was known as “Blackie”— was the motive for the attack. (“History will prove whether I am right or wrong.”)
Verwoerd’s grandson, the nervous theologian turned activist, says that his grandfather’s legacy is “like walking around with a stone in your stomach.” As the metamorphosis of the new South Africa continues, that heavy legacy remains. But the beast has been killed: better a stone than a tapeworm.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 30, 1999