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COUNTRY OF MY SKULL By Antjie Krog Random House, $27.50

I "knew" who murdered my friend Griffiths Mxenge, the black South African human rights lawyer and underground member the African National Congress, as soon as I read about his death in the newspaper in November 1981. His killers tried to make it look like a nighttime robbery, cutting his throat and stabbing him so viciously the knife got caught behind his ribs. But I knew the apartheid regime, in some way, was behind his death.

I also knew the regime was responsible for killing other friends of mine: Anton Lubowski, the white human rights lawyer, a young man of great courage and humor; David Webster, also white, a gentle anthropologist who helped start a support committee for political detainees; and Petrus (Nzima) Nyawose and his wife, Jabu Nyawose, two black trade union activists, former garment workers, who belonged to the outlawed ANC. Every time I vote, even when I'm annoyed at the narrow range of choices, I think of Petrus, who was killed by a car bomb when he was 37 years old, without ever having cast a ballot.

The only questions were secondary ones. From how high up the chain of command came the orders to commit these and other murders, and to arm and abet the "third force" paramilitary bands that contributed to 20,000 deaths in the last years of apartheid? Did white Cabinet ministers, or even apartheid presidents P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk, order the killing directly? Or did the highest officials make the same kind of indirect suggestions that the English King Henry II did to encourage his knights to murder the principled archbishop Thomas Becket--some modern version of "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" It was possible in a few cases that zealous mid- or lower-echelon security police, perhaps in league with the neo-fascist right, killed on their own. One thing was certain: The apartheid police never pursued any of the killers, who therefore knew they could act with impunity.

Antjie Krog's skillful, passionate new book about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission makes it clear that black South Africans felt just as I did. Krog is a poet-turned-journalist, and she followed the Commission on its lengthy journey around South Africa as it listened to witnesses from Cape Town to the Limpopo River, taking more than 20,000 statements. She explains that blacks were not surprised to learn that the people who had kidnapped, tortured, and murdered their children and relatives were security policemen, agents of an internationally-recognized government that numbered Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher among its friends.

But many white South Africans had not known--or had not wanted to know. Krog is an Afrikaner, part of the 60 percent of the white population who have a reputation for racial intransigence and were proportionally overrepresented in the apartheid regime, including in the ranks of security police torturers. Her pained examination of herself, her family, Afrikaners, and white South Africans in general gives this book tremendous power. Yet despite her searing and fearless self-scrutiny, she does not go far enough up the chain of command. She ends up, by omission, exonerating the CEOs of big Western banks and corporations and the governments of Reagan and Thatcher, who were deeply implicated in sustaining apartheid and who also said nothing about torture and murder.

Krog set herself a difficult task. Readers outside South Africa will find it hard at times to follow the unusual names, the unfamiliar places, and the complicated political landscape, even with the help of a glossary. But Krog's skill, along with the nature of the testimony itself, guarantees that this book will still have an impact, even for people who don't fully grasp the different players.

In one memorable scene, a black member of the new Parliament, Tony Yengeni, questioned a white security police captain who had tortured him a few years earlier. As Krog points out, Yengeni did not use the opportunity to vent his rage at the police captain, but to probe what sort of person was capable of nearly suffocating a person to death.

Torture victim asks torturer, "What kind of man ... uhm ... that uses a method like this one ... to other human beings ... repeatedly ... and listening to those cries and groans ... and taking each of those people very near to their deaths ... what kind of man are you, what kind of man is that, that can do ... what kind of human being can do that, Mr. Benzien?"

Many of the Truth Commission members and reporters who covered the dramatic public hearings became depressed and even physically ill as they listened day after day to such painful testimony. Krog shows the Commission's chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, holding the search for truth together with superhuman grace and compassion. One of Tutu's finest moments came with the appearance of a defiant Winnie Mandela. The Commission took testimony about abuses on all sides of the political struggle, and witnesses had already linked her to a gang of young men, based in her home in Soweto, who savagely beat and even killed people they suspected of disloyalty, including a 14-year-old boy. Why Nelson Mandela's now ex-wife, once a courageous symbol of resistance, went bad is still not clear, although Krog's report suggests that acute alcoholism seems to have played some part.

In a dramatic moment, Tutu looked directly at Mandela and asked her to stop denying the truth. As the entire nation held its breath, he won from her, finally, an admission that "things went horribly wrong," a grudging and half-hearted admission, but an acknowledgment nonetheless.

The Truth Commission was created as a political compromise between the old regime and the new government. It was based on a simple premise: Those who told the truth would be offered amnesty for their crimes. The Commission succeeded partly because it offered amnesty on an individual basis. This is in contrast to Latin America, where one country after another returning to civilian rule promulgated blanket amnesties, recusing torturers from answering for their crimes. Two decades later, many of the mothers who demonstrate in the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina still do not know what happened to their "disappeared" children.

In South Africa the truth process had a tremendous and perhaps unexpected impact on victims and their family members. Lucas Baba Sikwepere, who was blinded when security police opened fire on a small community meeting, sat in front of an audience he couldn't see and said: "I feel what has been making me sick all the time is the fact that I couldn't tell my story. But now I--it feels like I got my sight back by coming here and telling you the story" The most common request from family members of the disappeared was for their remains, so the dead could be given proper burials.

Not all the victims reconciled. Mrs. Charity Kondile, who heard how her son was murdered and burned, refused to forgive the security policemen responsible. "It is easy for Mandela and Tutu to forgive," she said. "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."

One remarkable fact emerges: The number of actual torturers was small. The same names appear and reappear in testimony. This is consistent with the experience in other countries. In the early 1970s, the courageous Greek democrat Alexandros Panagoulis exploded when journalist Oriana Fallaci asked him if the years of torture he had endured had made him incapable of loving human beings. "Of still loving them?" he asked incredulously. "Of loving them more, you mean! God damn it, how can you ask such a question? You don't think I identify humanity with the brutes in the Greek military police? Why, that's only a handful of men! Doesn't it mean anything to you that in all these years they're always the same ones?"

Frank Chikane, a black South African clergyman who serves in the new government, has a similar view of his torturers. He is quoted in another excellent book on post-apartheid South Africa, David Goodman's Fault Lines. Chikane says he does not regard the individual security policemen as the "embodiment of evil." He blames "the guys who are enjoying themselves"--whom he defines as "the top generals, the MPs, politicians, the lot," who "have their pensions guaranteed, and who are earning even double salaries for the death of our people." Chikane insists: "If you really wanted to do justice, it's not to lock up de Kock [the most notorious death squad commander]. It's to lock up the people who manipulated the madness in de Kock, because they needed half-mad people."

Chikane's insight is both magnanimous and chilling. The security police in Krog's book do come across as brutal and unbalanced. These men took the stand, and at times with unnerving calm told how they had kidnapped and killed. But they are convincing when they say they felt they were fighting a vast Communist conspiracy bent on destroying them and their way of life, and that their actions were sanctioned from the very top.

And who can blame them for thinking that way? South Africa was no isolated backwater, cut off from the world economy. Western banks had loaned the apartheid system several billion dollars, and all over the country you could see signs of several billions more in Western investment, from outposts of Kentucky Fried Chicken to Ford and Chevrolet automobiles to IBM computers. Ronald Reagan made warm overtures to the South African regime; Morley Safer of "60 Minutes" conducted a fawning interview with President P.W. Botha, and Margaret Thatcher said Nelson Mandela's African National Congress was a terrorist organization and anyone who believed it would one day form the government was living in "cloud cuckoo land" Even more directly, the veteran American journalist Bill Berkeley, author of the forthcoming The Color of Darkness, has compiled convincing evidence of personal ties between high-level Reagan administration security officials and their South African counterparts.

Krog explains that the Truth Commission did conduct three days of hearings into the role of South African big business in maintaining and profiting from apartheid. Professor Sampie Terblanche, a colorful, committed anti-apartheid Afrikaner, testified that even though South African black workers had built a modern mining and industrial sector, black wages in 1972 were lower than they had been in 1911. But the Truth Commission did not--or could not--follow the chain of guilt overseas.

My friends Griffiths, Anton, David, Petrus, and Jabu are dead and nothing will bring them back, although the Truth Commission did find out, specifically, who killed each of them. This was no small matter, particularly in Anton's case. The apartheid regime tried to smear him after he was shot dead outside his home, suggesting he had actually been taking money from them as an informer. The Truth Commission crushed that lie.

My friends were very different people, and they would not have seen eye to eye on everything. But I think all of them would have agreed with the following statement: If Western banks, corporations, and governments had not continued to support apartheid, Nelson Mandela would have been elected in the '60s, instead of waiting, mostly in prison, until 1994. Globalization enthusiasts gush over our growing interconnectedness. Maybe, in that spirit, we need an International Truth Commission before which the Chase Manhattan Bank and IBM would be required to testify about their complicity in apartheid before they would be permitted to appeal for amnesty.

James North spent four years in southern Africa researching Freedom Rising, a first-hand account of apartheid. His forthcoming book, Structures of Sin, is about the human implications of globalization.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:North, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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