Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

When Memory Comes : Between Hope and History, a Nation Bravely Confronts Its Traumatic Past : THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION OF SOUTH AFRICA REPORT; Foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Five volumes with CD-ROM; Grove's Dictionaries Inc.; 3,500 pp., $250 : COUNTRY OF MY SKULL: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa; By Antjie Krog; Times Books; 404 pp., $27.50

August 29, 1999|JON BLAIR | Jon Blair is an Academy Award-winning film director. He left South Africa in 1966 when he was drafted into the army. In 1976, he made the first documentary film about the Soweto uprising, shot illegally inside South Africa, and in 1977 he wrote "The Biko Inquest," which he subsequently directed off-Broadway

"They unbuttoned my shirt and pulled my breast out of my bra, they emptied one drawer and my breast was squeezed in the drawer. They did this several times on each of the breasts up until white sticky stuff burst out of the nipples . . . I cried, but it was no use, because no one could hear me."

What kind of man is it that can do this or can push an electrified rod up the anus of a teenage boy or can coldbloodedly kill an uncooperative detainee and then hold an all-night steak-and-beer barbecue while he and the other killers burn their victim's body to ashes in a nearby fire? The details, if not the answers, are all there as I read page after page of the mesmerizing 3,500 pages of the official report of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And then, finally, I break down on page 575 of Vol. 3. There on the page is the testimony of Deborah Matshoba. I remember Deborah well. It is 1976 and I am secretly shooting the first documentary about the Soweto uprisings. South Africa is in turmoil. Five hundred seventy-five people, mostly schoolchildren, have been shot dead in the streets by police and 2,380 have been wounded--and that's just the official count. Deborah was a leader of one of the black consciousness student organizations owing allegiance to the philosophy of Steve Biko, himself to die a lonely and miserable death from brain injuries, naked, in a police cell a year later.

In her interview for the film, Deborah quietly explained what "the struggle" was about, what was the cost for opponents of the apartheid regime and how they--the student generation--would not give up until they had won freedom for their country. Deborah had just spent six weeks in detention. She was an attractive, slightly overweight young woman in her early 20s. The day after our secret chat for the cameras, she was arrested, and I never knew what happened to her.

Now I know. For here, as detailed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, is what happened to Deborah. She was taken to a prison 300 miles away, where she spent 12 months in solitary confinement. She was given no explanation for her detention, and when she demanded to know why she had been detained she was severely tortured. "They held a braai (a barbecue) outside the police station. They manacled my ankle on a big iron ball. They made me stand the whole night. . . . The third night I started becoming delirious and my legs were swelling . . . this man started beating me up. He held a towel, strangled me with a towel and started bashing my head against the wall. . . . I could not sit down and when I collapsed they kicked me. Eventually I must have passed out. I was bleeding. I must have passed out because when I came to I was lying on the floor, all wet. They must have poured water over me and he threw a packet of sanitary pads at me. . . . The beating up lasted a week. I was asthmatic and they refused to give me medication." After months of this treatment Deborah weighed just 95 pounds: "I had no hair, you know, my hair was just pulling out . . . you could just pick it out."

Deborah was fortunate. She, at least, survived to tell her story more than 20 years later to the commission. Prominent attorney and longtime anti-apartheid activist Griffiths Mxenge did not. We now know, however, as much about what happened to Mxenge as we do of Deborah. In a chilling use of language, the commander of a police hit squad was instructed by his superior to "make a plan with Mxenge." And what exactly was that? First, it involved obtaining strychnine for Mxenge's dogs. A hit squad of four special policemen intercepted Mxenge in his car on his way home from work on Nov. 20, 1981. They dragged him from the vehicle and took him to a nearby cycling stadium, where they beat and stabbed him repeatedly. One of his assailants told the commission that "Mxenge had resisted his attackers fiercely until he was struck on the head with a wheel spanner. He fell to the ground, and the stabbing continued until he was dead. They disemboweled him and cut his throat and ears."

That post-apartheid South Africa is a "miracle" is by now a commonplace. Just how miraculous that miracle was is confirmed by even a cursory glance through the pages of this extraordinary and indispensable document. It is a salutary and timely reminder of just how remarkable the transformation has been from the bad old days of apartheid, while at the same time confirming that however terrible one may have imagined those days to be, nothing could prepare one for the reality painstakingly described in such convincing and overwhelming detail in this report.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|