". . . there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu (the African philosophy of humanism) but not for victimization."
so writes Antjie Krog in her introduction to Country of My Skull.
“Trying to understand the new South Africa without the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be futile; trying to understand the commission without this book would be irresponsible.” (Andre Brink)
How did South Africa not descend into a bloodbath upon her emergence into democracy? What made her transition from a totalitarian police state to one-man-one-vote so different than say, Rwanda, Sudan, Yugoslavia or Congo? How were the victims of oppression deterred from vengeance?
Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is largely responsible for the level of healing and restoration that is evident in SA today. With Desmond Tutu incorporating the spiritual element in resolving conflicts, the TRC had potential for healing broken spirits. Forgiveness and release of bitterness were hallmarks of the TRC as recorded by Krog.
The three year long TRC was not a “quick fix” and made no claims to solving problems. It was designed as a platform for stories to be told and the victims to meet their torturers on equal footing. Antjie Krog was South African Broadcasting Company’s (radio) representative on this sojourn which crisscrossed the country and listened to thousands of heart-breaking stories. It included her own mental breakdown.
Country of My Skull is her personal record of that journey, including many stories that shock and repulse. Her poetic voice (she has published eight volumes of poetry) speaks eloquently of the emotions on both sides of the apartheid regime. Her attempts to clearly present the voices of all speakers, although throughout her life her writing was against the official position, are strong and clear. She describes vividly the courtroom scenes and the haunted faces.
The subtitle for Country of My Skull is “Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa.” With so much vested in the success of the TRC, Krog honestly looks at how effective a process was which offered amnesty to any for simply “telling the truth.” Her epilogue balances the searing impossibility of the task with the manifest results. No bloodbath. She acknowledges Mandela’s personal integrity and character when he accepted the TRC’s report despite the discontent of his party, the ANC.
The TRC was a very significant milestone in the continental story of Africa. It needs to be heard. Journalists are rarely poets, so accounts of these milestones are often lengthy and boring. But Krog brings her poet voice to the task and a beautiful experience awaits the reader. As Nadine Gordimer asserts: Krog the poet was not afraid to go too far.