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Book Review: Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog

Book Review: Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog

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Book Review: Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog
If you want to understand modern South Africa you must understand the politics of the last century. There is no better place to start than with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Antjie Krog's masterwork places you in the mind of both oppressed black freedom fighters and entrenched white Afrikaner.

The very pages are suffused with the people, and their struggle to come to terms with decades of Apartheid. The overwhelming need for understanding and release, or closure as American psychologists put it, speaks in volumes throughout the eloquent writing in this book.

If you are going to buy one book about modern South Africa, make it this one.

When ex-president De Klerk blames the gross human rights violations of the Apartheid era on "the bad judgement, overzealousness or negligence of individual policemen", Antjie Krog is harrowed beyond words. Later, when she has the strength, she captures the sense of anguish with the passage below:

"And suddenly it is as if an undertow is taking me out ... out ... and out. And behind me sinks the country of my skull like a sheet in the dark - and I hear a thin song, hooves, hedges of venom, fever and destruction fermenting and hissing underwater. I shrink and prickle. Against. Against my blood and the heritage thereof. Will I for ever be them -- recognising them as I do daily in my nostrils? Yes. And what we have done will never be undone. It doesn't matter what we do. What De Klerk does. Until the third and the fourth generation."

There is a standard problem in history, and that is of interpretation. When looking at source material from the past it is inevitable that modern morality and consensus will colour opinion and understanding. The recent flock of books exposing famous characters in Africa's past as either racists or homosexuals (or both) is a prime example. Country of My Skull is an example to all those who seek to record current affairs for the future. It is a book which gives not only primary source material from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, but also insight to the thought and morals of the people involved. You CAN judge these people from what's contained in these pages, their innermost souls are exposed for all to see.

Krog has sliced beneath the skin of legalese and confabulation, she has gone beyond the passive, rigid expressions of defendant and victim alike and exposed a side of South Africa not inherently available to the outsider. This book goes a long way to explaining just how the Apartheid regime could last as long as it did, it gives reason to the concept of truth and reconciliation, and it shows that there is hope for South Africa's future.

The book starts with a description of how the Commission was brought in to being, with the inevitable political bickering and nail-biting drama of constitutional cliff-hangers -- especially the call to extend both the period covered by the investigation and the deadline for amnesty applications.

Krog recounts human rights violations, cross-examination of applicants, both black and white, for amnesty, and describes the complications on the question of reparation and rehabilitation. These represent three distinct committees within the Commission.

Parallels are drawn between the continued distress of those recalling human rights violations and the empathised suffering of the Commissioners and reporters. None escaped unharmed, either through the deterioration of family life, or through serious physical affliction. Archbishop Desmond Tutu's cancer was seen by many as a physical manifestation of terrors he had vicariously experienced.

Krog is criticised by right-wing factions amongst the Afrikaner community for her reporting of the TRC -- this is summed up for her by a comment from the leader of the National Party:

"You have fallen hook, line and sinker for the ANC's attempts to put the blame on the Afrikaner. And I am sorry - I will not take the blame for people who acted like barbarians, who ignored the parameters of their duties. They are criminals and ought to be punished."

She is surprised to find herself identifying with those whites who have applied for amnesty, and who have managed to express their own "fears and shame and guilt". This is not an easy process for them, as she is told:

"The norms you are used to following no longer apply and you, alone, are now called upon to explain your actions within a totally different framework. So it is with the ... applicants. They are no longer buffered by an Afrikaner culture in power."

Specific cases covered include the horrors carried out by the Vlakplaas, the Apartheid regime's death squad (although it's actually the name of the farm where they were based), the origins of necklacing in Queenstown, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's involvement in the kidnappings and murders committed by the Mandela United Football Club.

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