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Any U.S. citizen of a certain age will remember America’s own version of apartheid. For decades, our cruel “separate-but-equal” laws gave legal backing to discrimination in education, housing, marriage, jobs, and voting. Like apartheid-era South Africa, Jim Crow America tolerated something less than complete liberty for all. But come 1965, with a Constitution newly bolstered by civil rights clauses, we Americans suddenly knew all there was to know about the evils of legalized race discrimination. We and other nations turned our attention to South Africa, where a tiny white minority oppressed a black and “coloured”—mixed-race, Indian, and Asian—majority beneath an economic and political iron heel.

Say what you will about our odious Jim Crow laws; the U.S. government never bulldozed entire black neighborhoods and towns, seizing the land for white housing. For some three decades, South African mayhem fed the world’s daily news diet, as the terrorist wings of the African National Congress (ANC), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and other groups fought with the ruling National Party’s own terrorist sects—the military, the police—and each other. The world spent this time chewing its nails with anxiety, wondering not whether but when South Africa would explode into full civil war and destruction. (South Africa itself was just as convinced. Even Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer made no bones about predicting a violent black-led revolution in, for example, her 1981 novel, July’s People.)

But South Africa didn’t explode—not all of it, and certainly not in one furious catastrophe. Years of sanctions would pave the way for concessions and, eventually, open, all-race elections in 1994.

South Africa’s transition into democracy, albeit of the one-party variety, has looked neat as a pin from our perspective. After 1994, the outside world sounded a collective “Bravo” and gradually stopped watching, satisfied with the apparent calm. The country’s second free elections came and went on June 2, when venerable President Nelson Mandela passed the torch to longtime deputy Thabo Mbeki.

In fact, since 1994, crime and capital flight have strangled the country. Pessimism and confusion have steadily drained the new South Africa’s moral, legal, political, and intellectual spirit. Antjie Krog’s South Africa is still a republic in big trouble—in some ways as much as ever.

In Country of My Skull, Krog tells the story of the years following the 1994 elections—the years of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), of testimony from the survivors of years of apartheid violence. A reporter for South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC) radio and a prolific poet, Krog began covering the TRC in December 1995. For over two years, she watched the commission, chaired by the legendary Archbishop Desmond Tutu, descend from a noble group of 17 commissioners—Afrikaner and Anglo; black and coloured; politicians, clergy, medical personnel—into a controversial, flummoxed body known for bringing as much discontent as relief.

The TRC wrapped up its first round of hearings last year; its Amnesty Committee, led by three judges—two black, one white—continues to analyze requests for leniency with one principal yardstick: An excusable crime must have been committed purely in the name of politics. (With 7,050 amnesty applications, the committee will probably be busy for a while.)

Country of My Skull is a chronicle of the TRC’s descent into pandemonium, but Krog goes far beyond describing the life and times of the TRC. Unavoidably, a discussion of the TRC and its testimonials forces a discussion of South Africa during apartheid, and Krog outlines a decent who’s who of apartheid. But Krog’s book is also an open, autobiographical exercise in truth and reconciliation, and she writes partially to confront her own past. If the SABC transcripts she includes make her reporting seem relatively unadorned, Krog the author looks at her country and herself from a passionate, emotional off-mike standpoint.

Krog pulls her audience into her personal maelstrom with an engaging narrative voice and powerful storytelling. Her book strongly recalls another white South African journalist’s confessional, Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart. But whereas Malan’s soulful essay captures the wretchedness of apartheid, Krog proves that unreconciled anger and pain persist in “the New South Africa.”

Most chapters of Country of My Skull offer sample testimony revealing some of apartheid’s worst atrocities. The TRC, it seems, succeeded in at least one sense: Witnesses of all kinds aired their horror stories at long last, forcing the whole country to listen to even the poorest among the wronged. Such stories paint recent South Africa as a society of scarcely imaginable violence and sadism—a brutal netherworld of parents murdered at home in front of children, of live rats shoved into women’s vaginas, and of the braaing (barbecuing) of still-living prisoners. (As amnesty-seekers told the TRC, empirical evidence shows that it takes about eight hours to grill an adult man into ash.)

Why would a former “security” thug possibly cooperate with the TRC? In theory, full disclosure promised possible amnesty and a clearer conscience, whereas placing a wager

on silence risked the full force of future prosecution. But in practice, only low-octane goons, not politicians, had such a choice. The powerful have generally remained silent.

Meanwhile, the ANC—especially its militant subset, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation—had often behaved as viciously as competing outlawed political groups, the South African Defence Force, the dreaded police, or any miscellaneous unaffiliated terrorist cells. But because the TRC was created by an ANC-led Parliament, the ANC treated the TRC as a joke, or at least with cocky disregard. Under pressure from Tutu, the ANC contemptuously submitted its amnesty applications only as the deadline loomed. With typically conversational style, Krog illustrates the ANC’s upper hand:

I secure an interview with Joe Modise, former commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe and current minister of defense. Will he be applying for amnesty? Yes, he says, because many things can happen under your command that you don’t plan for. I put the story out on the news. There is an angry call from an ANC spokesperson: Modise is not applying personally for amnesty, but will form part of a collective ANC application.

“But the law doesn’t allow for collective amnesty,” I say to this man, who suddenly sounds a bit like [far-right separatist] Eugene Terre’Blanche [ex-Security Branch chief], Johan van der Merwe, and [ex-military leader] Constand Viljoen on the subject of amnesty.

“Lady, who would know better what the ANC is saying—you or me?”

Such arrogance paralyzed the TRC’s work and mission. Worse, as time went on, the TRC amassed a record in which black confessors proved far more likely to be excused for their crimes than whites, thus giving whites a disincentive to come clean. Evidence showed that too much openness could only hurt the amnesty-seeker.

And those who failed to win amnesty were often of the small-fish variety. A sadistic policeman, William Harrington, tearfully apologized for his murders before losing his leniency bid. Others equipped with more verve or sang-froid went free. An obvious example is Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who truculently stared down the TRC when confronted with her own guerrilla activities, which almost certainly included kidnapping and possibly murder. Another, less ambiguous monster, former President P.W. Botha, simply refused to testify at all. So did Mangosuthu Buthelezi, head of ANC rival IFP.

Jeffrey Benzien, an Afrikaner policeman who specialized in torture by use of wet sacks over victims’ heads, coolly claimed fuzzy memories and showed little remorse. “How to distinguish between lies and memory loss?” Krog asks. Scarcely into a cross-examination, an enraged Tony Yengeni—once a Benzien victim, now a member of Parliament—became meek and tongue-tied in the crosshairs of Benzien’s stare.

Such details make for fascinating anecdotes, but Krog’s larger point is the tragedy of the well-meaning TRC: that unavoidable compromises make justice impossible. To get cooperation, the Amnesty Committee must display tolerance of political crimes, black or white. For this tolerance, victims of political violence get nothing but a public airing of their horrors and, if they qualify, perhaps as much as 1,000 rand (now worth about $161) for medical assistance.

Krog’s book has no pretensions about taking an unslanted, academic look at the TRC and apartheid. Part of the pleasure of reading Country of My Skull lies in the utterly prosaic quality of her experiences as a reporter—a high-pressure world of tapes, shouting matches with program directors, and changing clothes hurriedly in outdoor parking lots. She seems to have enjoyed superb access to the TRC commissioners and even its files—she is a reporter who subtly declines to leave the room when asked to do so. As a result, along with Tutu’s seemingly limitless humanity and optimism, we see his great fits of anger (occasionally directed at Krog’s broadcasts) and depression. Off the air, Krog shows refreshing biases, her brand of compassion both petulant and desperate:

I’m sitting opposite my child’s tutor to discuss his bad math marks, when the beeper in my jacket pocket goes off. “Archbishop Tutu in hospital for cancer tests.”

Everything falls away.

In my head only a flame-thin sound.

It cannot be. It dare not be….

The process is unthinkable without Tutu. Impossible. Whatever role others might play, it is Tutu who is the compass. He guides us in several ways, the most important of which is language. It is he who finds language for what is happening. And it is not the language of statements, news reports, and submissions. It is language that shoots up like fire—wrought from a vision of where we must go and from a grip on where we are now. And it is this language that drags people along with the process.

It takes me forever to choose the right flowers.

Even more personal is Krog’s disclosure of an extramarital tryst while covering the TRC far from home. Krog paints the event itself only in oblique terms. But when she reveals her dalliance (perhaps in the spirit of truth and reconciliation) to her husband, John Samuel, he weeps angrily: “‘I will never forgive you—you have destroyed everything,’ his voice breaks into the towel that I hold out for him.” (Samuel apparently has since forgiven Krog; the two remain married. “He is the man of my heart,” she writes.)

The episode may seem irrelevant, but Krog reasonably deploys it as a small allegory for postapartheid South Africa. More questionable is her decision to mine victims’ stories for poetry. “No poetry should come forth from this,” asserts the author of eight volumes of poems. “May my hand fall off if I write this.” Yet she soon goes back on her word, alchemizing testimony into found verse. The temptation seems bizarre, if not opportunistic.

It’s a small point; otherwise, Krog hardly ever steers her outstanding book wrong. Moreover, her poetic instinct enhances and complements her prose voice throughout. Krog is especially generous in letting the victims speak for themselves. TRC testimony plucked from the book at random, from witness Chris Ribeiro:

I ran to the [Opel] Kadett…someone seated on the rear left-hand seat fired three shots at me…a person stretching across the car shot at me…he pointed the gun at me. I saw his hand…it was a white man’s hand. I can still picture the orange spark coming from the gun…I ran back home…I found my father sprawled at the drain in our courtyard with twenty-five bullets in his head. My mother was spread-eagled further away with one shot only. She didn’t seem injured. There was no blood. I held her in my arms and she sighed—that was her last breath.

But Krog learns that testimony is one thing, forgiveness another:

In an interview after refusing to forgive [security policeman] Dirk Coetzee for killing and “braaing” her son, Mrs. [Charity] Kondile says: “It is easy for Mandela and Tutu to forgive…they lead vindicated lives. In my life, nothing, not a single thing, has changed since my son was burnt by barbarians…nothing. Therefore I cannot forgive.”

The TRC may have cleared the air in “the New South Africa,” but to those of us who thought South Africa has had its happy ending, Krog’s deeply moving, humane and readable book suggests that actual healing remains a fantasy. CP