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Remembering to forget: testimony, collective memory and the genesis of the 'new' South African nation in Country of My Skull.


In this essay I consider the role of memory in the creation of the post-apartheid nation: how does memory--individual and communal--function in the shaping of nationhood? Specifically, how does a text such as Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull, which seeks to straddle the divide of personal, individualised memory and collective memory, contribute to this process in post-apartheid South Africa?

Drawing on the proliferation of testimonies which emerged from the Truth Commission, in this text Krog actively contributes to the construction of collective memory. But, as Ernest Renan reminds us, although "the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common"--and shared historical narratives are crucial in this regard--it is equally important that the nation collectively suppresses specific aspects of knowledge of the past. Renan continues: "Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of the nation". What is it that Country of My Skull asks us to remember, what should we forget? And what are the ethical implications thereof?


In his autobiography, the playwright John Osborne observes: "What we remember is what we become. What we have forgotten is more kindly and only disturbs our dreams. We have become resemblances of our past" (1991:ch.23). Cognisance of the indissoluble link between memory and identity informs individuals' day to day behaviour, it impacts on casual and long-term relationships, and it also plays a crucial role in religious, ethical and legal systems. Osborne's statement seems to imply a measure of determinism, with identity as the clay, shaped by an immutable past. This may ring true with most of us, whether we embrace what we perceive to be our indebtedness to the past or try to escape that heavy influence with the help of psychotherapy or religious intervention and such like. Nevertheless, we need to scratch beneath the surface of this assertion for we will find there another layer of truism: none of us is the passive recipient of the unstable, shifting store of memories that are, at various times, available to recall. Indeed, we actively structure memory, storing information and experience that is always already interpreted, ensuring that it makes sense, that it accords with beliefs, attitudes and desires. The past is not retained in memory intact or in toto. All memories are not equal--not for individuals, families, communities or nations. In this essay I consider the role of memory in the creation of the post-apartheid nation: how does memory--individual and communal--function in the shaping of nationhood? Specifically, how does a text such as Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull, which seeks to straddle the divide of personal, individualized memory and collective memory, contribute to this process in post-apartheid South Africa?

Memory, both for individuals and groups, is responsive to cues and triggers. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings (which began in April 1996 and ended in March 1998), conducted around the country and reported extensively in all eleven official languages across a range of media, provided just such a memory prompt for individuals (those who actively participated in the process as testifiers and second-person witnesses to that testimony, as well as those who merely heard about the process) and also for institutions like big business, the judiciary, the health sector, the media and political parties. In an important sense, the Truth Commission (to use Krog's telling abbreviation) itself provided the framework for the interweaving of individual memory with collective memory, unofficial memory and official memory; it created new memories for individuals as they heard/read/saw what was emanating from the TRC, and gathered together individuals' memories to create a trans-individual storehouse.

The TRC provided a very distinct kind of cue to a very specific kind of remembering and analysts like Lars Buur (2002) have explored the ways in which what individuals recalled was shaped and trimmed so as to fit officially sanctioned paradigms. (2) In Country of My Skull, Krog tells the story of the Commission and of her experiences as an SABC radio reporter. The narrative begins when the TRC was still being conceptualised and ends when its task is all but completed. In the opening pages, the narrator recounts the appearance of an Afrikaner white supremacist before the South African Parliament's Justice Portfolio Committee which was tasked with drawing up the draft legislation to establish the Truth Commission. Bearing a name which is so apt one would think only a writer of fictional satire could have dreamt it up, Eugene Terre'Blanche gives an exaggeratedly dramatic performance which the authorial narrator recounts in a tone of pronounced irony, thus establishing her ideological distance from him. From this beginning, the story of the Commission and of events and people associated with it unfolds, ending with the Commission's still to be completed task of compiling the final report in 1998. It is a story which is firmly centred in the experiences (some fictionalised) of the authorial narrator as a reporter for radio news.

Her telling of the story is not merely objective reporting: it is an impassioned and even desperate engagement. Early on the authorial narrator embraces her role as chronicler of the past, as record-keeper of the testimonies of those who might be forgotten:
 To seize the surge of language by its soft, bare skull

 Beloved, do not die. Do not dare die! I, the survivor, I wrap you
 in words so that the future inherits you. I snatch you from the
 death of forgetfulness. I tell your story, complete your
 ending--you who once whispered beside me in the dark.
 (Krog 1998:27)

Krog's narrative is, at times, searingly personal as she recounts experiences burning themselves into her psyche, "filling the head with ash" (Krog 1998: 29):
 I gasp for breath. Like two underwater swimmers my eyes burst out to
 the horizons ... the mountains lit in a blushing light-blue hedge of
 peace. I am drowning. My eyes claw at the trees, the kloofs ... see,
 smell ... the landscape of paradise and a language from paradise:
 mispel, maroela, tarentaal, I whisper. [...] I sit down on the steps
 and everything tears out of me. Flesh and blood can only endure so
 much. Every week we are stretched thinner and thinner over different
 patches of grief ... how many people can one see crying, how much
 sorrow wrenched loose can one accommodate ... and how does one get
 rid of the specific intonation of the words? It stays and stays.

 I wake up in unfamiliar beds with blood on my flayed lips ... and
 sound bites screaming in my ears.

 [...] My hair is falling out. My teeth are falling out. I have
 rashes. (Krog 1998: 48-9; unbracketed ellipses in original)

The authorial narrator's intimate, confessional revelations are central to the drama of the second-person witness; nevertheless, they occupy a relatively minor portion of the text. Proportionately, a far greater share of this "hybrid work, written at the edges of reportage, memoir, and metafiction" (Sanders 2000:16) is devoted to transcripts of people who testified before the Commission. Krog, like other TRC memoirists such as Chairperson Desmond Tutu, Deputy Chairperson Alex Boraine, Commissioner Wendy Orr and photographer Jillian Edelstein (whose work I consider in the larger project of which this essay is part), accepts the responsibility of the second-person witness to serve as "host to the word of the other" (Sanders 2000:34) and present the testimonies to a (potentially) new audience of readers. Bella Brodzki observes that, "More than any other kind of autobiographical expression, testimony needs an audience to fulfil itself" (2001:871). By incorporating the traumatic memories of others into her own self-consciously literary memoirs, Krog signals her role as member of the audience and the fact that the testimonies have become part of her documented memory. And in Country of My Skull, these recorded testimonies, together with what the authorial narrator shares with her readers of her own personal memories, become part of the reader's memory.

Michael Ignatieff points out that, "Everyone likes to watch catharsis, especially if it is someone else's" (in Edelstein 2001:15), but qualifies this with the recognition that very few South Africans could ignore the process or look on as detached consumers of spectacle. South Africans, across the spectrum, were called upon to acknowledge the testifier-witnesses' suffering. Shoshana Felman emphasizes the responsibility of the witness:
 To bear witness is to bear the solitude of a responsibility, and to
 bear the responsibility, precisely, of that solitude. [...] By
 virtue of the fact that the testimony is addressed to others, the
 witness, from within the solitude of his own stance, is the vehicle
 of an occurrence, a reality, a stance or a dimension beyond himself.
 (italics in original, 1992:3)

It is precisely this address to others that gives the act of testifying resonance which is greater than the mere communication of information. The auditor also bears responsibility. Dori Laub explains that the listener to the narrative of psychic trauma is "a party to the creation of knowledge de novo" because it is only in the process of bearing witness to the trauma that the event is truly taken cognisance of:
 The emergence of the narrative which is being listened to--and
 heard--is, therefore, the process and the place wherein the
 cognizance, the "knowing" of the event is given birth to. [...] The
 testimony to the trauma thus includes its hearer, who is, so to
 speak, the blank screen on which the event comes to be inscribed
 for the first time.

 By extension, the listener to the traumatic event comes to be a
 participant and co-owner of the traumatic event: through his very
 listening, he comes to partially experience the trauma in himself.
 (1992: 57).

So while the listener "partakes of the struggle of the victim with the memories and residues of his or her traumatic past" (Laub 1992:58), the listener also preserves "his own separate place, position and perspective; a battleground of forces raging in himself, to which he has to pay attention and respect if he is to carry out his task. The listener, therefore, has to be at the same time a witness to the trauma witness and a witness to himself" (Laub 1992:58). In Country of My Skull, Krog takes seriously the responsibility of "companion in a journey onto an uncharted land, a journey the survivor cannot traverse or return from alone" (Laub 1992:59) by incorporating the testimonies into her narrative, by having the authorial narrator examine "the battleground of forces raging" in herself, and by calling upon her readers to share the position of auditor.

The goal of the Truth Commission and of Krog and the other TRC memoirists is for collective memory to inform the ways individual members of the fledgling nation recollect the past--for collection memory to become national memory--by becoming part of South Africans' autobiographical memory. The term is used here as in psychology to mean "memory for the personal events and facts of one's life", which "implicates notions of self and relations of memory to self". Autobiographical memory is reflexive: "in recollective experience the subject (the rememberer) takes herself as object" (Conway 1992:4). If the testimonies become part of the autobiographical memory of auditors and readers, they will impact on a sense of self--as Osborne puts it, "what we remember is what we become"--and impact on future behaviour. Of course, there were people who said that the testimonies added little or nothing to what was generally known about apartheid: a journalist tells the narrator that blacks always knew the extent of the horror and most whites, I think, conceded that no-one could have been ignorant of the general abuse of human rights which was routine. Nevertheless, the TRC did excavate buried bodies as well as hitherto unknown facts (for blacks and whites: another black reporter learns of his brother's death as an activist in exile) and the stories of individuals' personal experiences did provide unique specific details that cannot have been known to listeners. And even if the stories reached those who "deliberately cut themselves off from the Truth Commission process" (Krog 1998:31) only in severely truncated form via news bulletins, at least they were disseminated. As Krog's narrator says,
 very few people escape news bulletins--even the music stations have
 a lunchtime news report. [...] Even people who do no more than
 listen to the news should be given a full understanding of the
 essence of the Commission, and hear quite a few of its stories.
 (Krog 1998:31)

In this way the testimonies enlarge each listener's or reader's own memory: "Now that people are able to tell their stories, the lid of Pandora's box is lifted; for the first time these individual truths sound unhindered in the ears of all South Africans" (45; emphasis added). This undoubtedly extravagant claim, probably originating in the author-narrator's role as member of the media, is nonetheless telling for it indicates that this is what is desired. Krog quotes Tutu: "This is a national project and everybody is important" (1998:158).

Through her pointedly belletristic, mixed genre writing, Krog extends the audience that the mass media at the time of the TRC were able to reach, (3) nevertheless, the authorial narrator questions the ethical validity of this project. She interrogates her motives for using the victims' testimonies in her work:
 No poetry should come from this. May my hand fall off if I write
 this. So I sit around. Naturally and unnaturally without words.
 Stunned by the knowledge of the price people have paid for their
 words. If I write this, I exploit and betray. If I don't, I die.
 (Krog 1998:49)

And in the postscript, the "Envoi", the narrator returns to this "self-doubt" (Krog 1998:280), describing how she responds to a publisher's entreaty to write a book about the Truth Commission. She wavers from an outright refusal to an insistence that she is unable to write it, to an avowal that she dare not, before finally conceding that she needs to write it in order to preserve her sanity. However, self-preservation is not the sole motive. Presumably, the publisher held up some very persuasive enticements, but more than this is at stake. In a fictional conversation, set up to explore the arguments espoused in a number of books that Krog names, (4) the narrator's interlocutor observes that if writers desist from writing about others' pain, if they admit that they have "no right to appropriate a story paid for with a lifetime of pain and destruction" (Krog 1998:237), then the inevitable happens, as happened to stories of the Holocaust: Hollywood steals the stories, and dresses them in soap opera garb (Krog 1998:238). While we do not know whether this persuades Krog or not, later the authorial narrator expresses unequivocally her empathy for the victims and comes to accept that as witness she bears a burden of responsibility to those who testified. At the end of the narrative she avers: "I want this hand of mine to write it. For us all; all voices, all victims" (Krog 1998:278).

"For us all". Who is the "us"? Who is the "all"? Coming at the end of the Truth Commission's work and her account of it, these words seek to signal the transcending of apartheid's racial and ethnic divisions, to embrace all South Africans who have been wounded, on whatever side of the apartheid divide. Krog is careful to include testimony by people who had suffered from across the racial spectrum.
 The hearings on human rights violations have forced the Truth
 Commission to formulate a different position on reconciliation--in a
 way that takes it out of the colour code and makes it available to
 all South Africans as a future guideline. The human rights of black
 people were violated by whites, but also by blacks at the
 instigation of whites. So the Truth Commission was forced to say:
 South Africa's shameful Apartheid past has made people lose their
 humanity. (Krog 1998:58)

In keeping with the desire to be inclusive, there is, in Country of My Skull, also an attempt to embrace those who did the wounding or who benefited thereby, whether by commission or omission, but who now remember with aversion those past selves. She cites unnamed psychiatrists who point out that for perpetrators or beneficiaries to concede that "then it was right, now it is wrong" represents "a very difficult and crucial leap"; the recognition "that the central truth around which your life has been built is a lie" entails a "risk of the disintegration of your self-image" (Krog 1998:95).

The narrator/protagonist wrestles with her sense of self, and this involves the interrogation of her own distance from or affiliation to men who killed: "Aversion. I want to distance myself. They are nothing to me. I am not of them" (Krog 1998:90). So does the "us all" exclude those who are unrepentant? Her indignant repudiation of the arrogant PW Botha and her condemnation of FW de Klerk support this reading, as does her revulsion for the "Vlakplaas manne" (Krog 1998:95). But this revulsion, partly comprised of a rejection of a specific kind of Afrikaner masculinity, is accompanied by a "slushy fear" (Krog 1998:90). She does not say what she is afraid of, but what can it be if not the fear that she is wrong, that she is of them, that she cannot safely relegate these professional torturers and murderers to the position of "The Other" (Krog 1998: 90)? A little later, listening to other self-confessed killers, the narrator asks in anguish:
 What can I do with this? They are as familiar as my brothers,
 cousins and schoolfriends. Between us all distance is erased. Was
 there perhaps never a distance except for the one I have built up
 with great effort over the years? [...] In some way or another all
 Afrikaners are related. [...] What I have in common with them is a
 culture--and part of that culture over decades hatched the
 abominations for which they are responsible.

 In a sense it is not these men but a culture that is asking for
 amnesty. (Krog 1998:96)

This is a complicated manoeuvre, this rejecting and embracing of certain Afrikaners, this interrogation of Afrikaner culture, and it occurs throughout the narrative. The authorial narrator is having to negotiate her way out of one kind of nation into another. She must redefine her identity as a member of an exclusive white Afrikaner nation (the ruling party was, after all, called the National Party), defined by language, religion, race and ethnicity as well as by the collective memory of victimisation at the hands of the British (5) and the shared fear of the threat of maltreatment in a "total onslaught" by the black majority.Thus what the authorial narrator has to forget, essentially, is the fundamental sense of self as a member of that very particular exclusive group, a group which, during the apartheid era, differentiated itself from the rest of the inhabitants of South Africa because of oppression--real, at the hands of the British; potential, at the hands of the 'natives', communists, non-Calvinists, liberals, the English-speaking world and modernity. It is not that the narrator-protagonist must forget her Afrikaner roots, but that she must cast off, or forget, the apartheid era meaning of that identity. The narrator asks:
 Was Apartheid the product of some horrific shortcoming in Afrikaner
 culture? Could one find the key to this in Afrikaner songs and
 literature, in beer and braaivleis? How do I live with the fact that
 all the words used to humiliate, all the orders given to kill,
 belonged to the language of my heart? (Krog 1998:238)

However, it is not Afrikaner culture in its entirety, or all Afrikaners, that the narrator rejects. De Klerk, who provokes extreme anger in her, nevertheless reminds her of her father, "And other blood-nationalists like him. Ordinary people. Good people" (Krog 1998: 98). What Krog seeks, in Country of My Skull, is to reconfigure the Afrikaner nation--it is telling that Krog prefers the more modest term "Afrikaner culture" (1998:238). In this view, "Afrikaner culture" is repositioned as one facet, a non-racial one (Krog notes that even De Klerk was "accompanied by a large, jubilant coloured contingent", 1998: 105) in a larger, inclusive multi-ethnic South African nation as defined by the government of national unity and the TRC which it legislated into life. This new South African nation is an African nation, not a 'European' one as in the nomenclature of apartheid.

But the repositioning of Afrikaners can only occur if there is remorse. Because the authorial narrator is, unequivocally, in and of that culture, she asks for clemency too. (6)
 .... the retina learns to expand
 daily because by a thousand stories
 I was scorched

 a new skin.

 I am changed forever. I want to say:
 forgive me
 forgive me
 forgive me (Krog 1998: 279)

The addressee is the Commission and "every victim who had an Afrikaner surname on her lips" (Krog 1998:np) to whom the book is dedicated as well as every other victim--"all victims" (1998:278). The reader is also being addressed but occupies an ambiguous position because, in a way similar to what happened to the translators who found themselves psychically as well as linguistically occupying the position of the testifying "I", the words "forgive me" (if we do not read against the grain) become our words. As narrator, protagonist and focaliser, as the central consciousness/es of the narrative on whom readers must rely and in whom we must place our trust, (7) this penitent authorial chronicler is our narrative guide. "[S]he"--the aggregated narrator-focalizer--confides the most private vulnerabilities, inviting readers to enter "a dialogic space within the text" (Moss 2006:91), and perhaps for us (especially those who are white South Africans) (8) to read ourselves into the position of probing the contours of our own guilt or innocence, our ethical standards, our human frailty.

It is this insistence on "a common humanity" (Krog 1998:278) that serves as the basis for the creation of the new post-apartheid nation. But humanity extends beyond national borders, so what is it that will create what Anderson has famously defined as an imagined community? As far back as 1882, when Europe was in the throes of nation-building, Renan argued that it is not necessary to have a common race--which, as we know, and as the apartheid government found out to its annoyance, is not scientifically measurable but is rather "made and unmade" (Renan 1990:15)--or a common language, or even a common religion. Nations need two things: "One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, [...] the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in undivided form" (Renan 1990:9). Krog's "us all" (1998:278) thus seeks to include all who share the will to move beyond the "brutalizing past" (Krog 1998:278) and who have offered their memories to the new collective memory, as raw material for the emergent national memory, or who have accepted the responsibility of the second-hand witness to the testimonies: "the personal story brought from the innermost depths of the individual binds us anew to the collective" (Krog 1998:237). Disseminated--to all intents and purposes--to all South Africans, these stories, laced as they are with "personal pain" (Krog 1998:45), together make an utterly changed normative structure, a new shared history for a new nation.

A nation, Renan argues, needs, in its collective memory, "A heroic past, great men [sic], glory" (1990: 19). For the narrator/protagonist of Country of My Skull, the super-hero is Chairperson Archbishop Tutu, "This wonderful man in whose presence I always experience humanity at its fullest--humanity as it was meant to be" (Krog 1998:154). The other Commissioners, for whom she ultimately feels "indescribable tenderness" (Krog 1998:278), are also valued for their courage. Of course, Nelson Mandela is there in pride of place too. Krog's narrator avers that the Truth Commission "has made a space for all of our voices [...], it carries a flame of hope that makes me proud to be from here, of here" (1998:278):
 Ah, the Commission! The deepest heart of my heart. Heart that can
 only come from this soil--brave--with its teeth firmly in the
 jugular of the only truth that matters. And that heart is black. I
 belong to that blinding black African heart. My throat bloats up in
 tears--my pen falls to the floor, I blubber behind my hand, my
 glasses fog up--for one brief shimmering moment this country, this
 country, is also truly mine. (Krog 1998:259)

The narrator's pride, evoked by the "miracle" of the "new" South Africa in its early transition to democracy, echoes the pride of nationalists all over the world: "'our' nation is 'the best'--in a competitive, comparative field" (Anderson 1991: 17, italics in original).

But in addition to heroes and glories, the nation also needs suffering in its past. Indeed, Renan argues, "suffering in common unites more than joy does. Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort" (1990:19). In an essay on "Memory and Forgetting" and the ethical implications thereof, Paul Ricoeur points out that,
 [M]ost events to do with the founding of any community are acts and
 events of violence. So we could say that collective identity is
 rooted in founding events which are violent events. In a sense,
 collective memory is a kind of storage of such violent blows,
 wounds and scars. (1998:8)

The TRC exposed hurt after hurt, the 8000 amnesty applicants' horrific accounts accentuating the stories of the 22 000 victims who testified, each group representing but a sample of the millions who had inflicted suffering and even more millions who had suffered under apartheid. The Commission in effect declared to all South Africans: we can and must all comprehend these hurts and examine our pasts so as to atone, if necessary; we can and must acknowledge the pain as part of a shared past so that we can move forward to a transcendent unity.

The collective memory created by the Truth Commission hearings can be thought of as a way of permitting all South Africans to participate in a kind of collective mourning for the suffering of victims and also for agents of the state and complacent beneficiaries. The inclusion of beneficiaries and supporters of apartheid is in line with Tutu's argument that in terms of the philosophy of ubuntu, "even the supporters of apartheid were victims of a vicious system which they implemented [...]. In the process of dehumanizing another, in inflicting untold harm and suffering, the perpetrator was inexorably being dehumanized as well" (1999: 35). (9) The TRC invited all citizens to mourn a tormented past. (The question of whether this endeavour was successful or not is extremely important, but it is not one which I am able to consider here.) In this respect, one must recall that of the many uses of memory, its use as a tool for working through past experience and past identities is critical. Ricoeur observes that the object of mourning is reconciliation: individually, reconciliation with oneself; in the political sphere, reconciliation with what is held to be acceptable, ethical. For Ricoeur, an ethics of memory signifies the good use of commemorative acts against the abuses of ritualised commemorisation. It is necessary to cherish the duty to remember, he argues, because we must resist the erosion of traces (the predisposition of memory, individual and collective, is always to destroy traces, to forget) and must "keep alive the memory of suffering over against the general tendency of history to celebrate the victors" (Ricoeur 1998:10). Country of My Skull, with its confessions by amnesty applicants and its many, many transcripts of victim testimonies, certainly focuses on suffering, that of the victims and--in response thereto--of the narrator/protagonist. (10)

The pain which was re-lived by victims and imparted to witnesses importantly charges the idea of the nation--the redefined, "new" post-apartheid nation--with a crucial emotionalism. David Blight notes that emotion, particularly emotion linked to memories of violence and war, is central to collective memory: "Memorialization in its many forms tends to stem from the need to commemorate, explain, or simply recognize blood sacrifice, loss, victory through death" (nd:3). Emotionalism is necessary to the nation's collective memory for it ensures that individuals will, hypothetically or in reality, die for their country. In Country of My Skull the narrator-protagonist initially tells her siblings that she wouldn't give up her life for South Africa because "no one [...] has the right to ask anyone to die for them. They can make claims on my life, I'll make sacrifices in that, but my death is my own" (Krog 1998:274). However, not long after she reaches a climactic apotheosis of nationalist commitment:
 My gaze, my eyes are one with the thousands of others that have
 looked back over the centuries towards Africa. Ours. Mine. Yes, I
 would die for this. It slips out, like a smooth holy sound. And I
 realize that it is the Commission alone that has brought me to these
 moments of fierce belonging. (1998:277)

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Collective memory of past pain, and of the shared will never to endure such pain again, creates a community--an imagined community, granted, but one that provokes fierce life and death, loyalty.

Usually, it is taken for granted that in relation to collective memory, forgetting is bad and remembering is good. "Identity is memory, says [Jose] Zalaquett. Identities forged out of half-remembered things or false memories easily commit transgressions" (Krog 1998:24). Zalaquett's point applies equally to individuals as to communities. Renan reminds us that "the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common" (1990:11)--and shared historical narratives are crucial in this regard. However, we know that remembering is dependent upon forgetting: we--as individuals or as collectivities--cannot remember everything. People who cannot prune what is stored in memory become dysfunctional, and while communities have the capacity to retain larger, more complex (even competing) accounts of the past, they too engage in selective remembering. Renan contends that as important as shared collective memories are in the service of nation-building, it is equally important that the nation collectively suppresses specific aspects of knowledge of the past. Renan continues: "Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of the nation" (1990:11).

Is there a duty to forget? Since not everything can be remembered, clearly it is in the interests of nation-building that the aspects of the past that are selected for communal commemoration should be standardized (at least in essence) and shared.

The TRC was not, course, the only means by which communal memory was constructed. In the years following the advent of democracy, there were new documentaries, museums, monuments, public holidays, exposes, histories, autobiographies, biographies and so on, all of which sought to alert South Africans to neglected or suppressed aspects of the past. As one of many of these commemorative strategies, the TRC nonetheless had a particularly significant role because of its ability, over the years that it was in session, to reach out to and include, thousands of victims and perpetrators and tens of thousands of ordinary radio listeners, newspaper readers and television viewers from all racial, linguistic and class groupings. And it is because of the TRC's magnitude that it is important to consider its limitations. By virtue of the unavoidable restrictions imposed by practical considerations, the TRC fostered the collective forgetting of the stories of those who kept below the radar, people who should have applied for amnesty but who did not do so. (11)

The confessions of thousands of apartheid state agents (Wouter Basson comes to mind) and some unnamed freedom fighters remain off the record. For instance, Krog tells us that along with PW Botha's arrogant claims to innocence and FW De Klerk's insistence on personal ignorance, the ANC delegation "did not really seem convinced that individuals should own up to their actions" (Krog 1998:125). Furthermore, the Truth Commission was limited in its mandate to hear only submissions concerning gross violations of human rights (defined as killing, abduction, torture and severe ill-treatment). This means that the vast majority of South Africans on both sides of the apartheid coin--that is, the millions who had been oppressed and their opposites, the supporters or beneficiaries of white supremacism--were not invited to testify. Their stories are effectively marginalised. Also in danger of falling into obscurity are those experiences which fall outside of the time limits: the Truth Commission's brief was to consider only those violations which occurred during the period 21 March 1960--10 May 1994 (from the Sharpeville massacre to the Inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President).

It seems to me that the question we must ask is: did the TRC, and the memoirs it spawned, promote too much forgetting? What about the previous four centuries of European expropriation of vast tracts of the land and the attendant human rights abuses under colonialism? What about the displacement and victimization of the Khoi and San peoples? What about the routine subordination, exploitation and abuse of women and children in and beyond all of this? What about ...?

By and large the TRC's limitations on collective memory are further reinforced in the memoirs which arose in response, since as publishable texts they must be even more ruthlessly selective of the testimonies that they reproduce than was the case of the TRC which singled out individuals to testify at the public hearings. Moreover, having chosen the testimonies they wanted to include, the memoirists, like Krog, then had to edit and shape these testimonies to fit their own narrative and ideological needs. In an essay on the process of having her work edited, Krog notes that beyond her own cutting and crafting, in Country of My Skull Ivan Vladislavic made
 the testimonies of the victims and perpetrators readable on paper.
 Initially I had the name of the victim plus the date and violation
 upfront and in bold. The testimony itself was in a different font
 so as to underline a resistance to appropriation. But people who had
 been asked to write something for the blurb confessed to 'skipping'
 the testimonies, because they were 'too hard to read'. (Krog

To ensure that the testimonies would be read, layout, font and punctuation were altered and some names were omitted.

Significantly, Krog seeks (unobtrusively) in Country of My Skull to redefine the TRC-imposed limits on collective memory. Perhaps most obvious is her insistence on greater attention to women as victims. The book is dedicated to women victims, and one chapter is entitled "Truth is a Woman". In line with this feminist credo, this desire to honour women, the narrator admits to refusing to tape the members of the ANC Women's League who chant: "'Winnie didn't kill alone!' they shout. 'Winnie had a mandate from us to kill!' I switch off my tape recorder. I don't want to hear it. I don't want to broadcast it. I don't want to live in a country where women mandate one another to murder" (Krog 1998: 246). (There is, of course, the paradox of this event being documented in Country of My Skull. In this text, the account signals the drama of the narrator/protagonist's inner turmoil.) And the narrator seems to need to suppress her own scepticism at Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's grudging apology. When a colleague questions her elation--"I am so proud for all of us," she exclaims, Winnie "has bent a knee to that heart" (Krog 1998:259)--the narrator confides that she rejects the cynicism because, "I want to hold everything. I want to lay myself down over this place of us all" (1998: 260).

Another instance of Krog's personal investment in altering the boundaries set for the TRC occurs when she recalls her mother's impassioned thoughts on HF Verwoerd's death in 1966. Her mother remembers the Anglo-Boer War more than half a century earlier: "the concentration camps, tears and blood", the struggle of Afrikaners "through years of tears and blood" (the repetition is telling), which were, she avers, the price paid for the privilege of their language (italics in original, Krog 1998:98). This short quoted passage of less than a page has, I would argue, importance which is belied by its length: the story of the brutalities inflicted on Boers by the British lies at the heart of Afrikaner sense of embittered entitlement; it is a core cultural truth. "Is truth that closely related to identity? It must be. What you believe to be true depends on who you believe yourself to be" (Krog 1998:99). The narrator herself elsewhere declares her love for her mother-tongue, and comments on the violence of the imperial language: the Queen of England's "Accent" (Krog's use of the capital is caustic) "has intimidated half the earth for centuries" (1998:8), and she records the response of another reporter to Julian Ogilvie-Thompson's "Victorian accent": "'For that accent alone you should apply for amnesty'" (1998:241). If the TRC will not place on record the oppression inflicted by the English, then Krog will. She wants readers to remember that Afrikaners, too, were victims. They did not spring out of a blank page of history as monsters.

The ways in which the narrator/protagonist evokes and suppresses memories mean that she, in effect, presents herself as a model for how individuals should quash inconvenient memories but retain others, in the service of the collective memory.

Krog's mother's brief account also illustrates in miniature the unifying effects of shared grief, referred to by Renan, and its importance to both collective and individual identity. The authorial narrator makes this connection to her own Afrikaner identity. Her first words after her mother's piece are:
 I think of her and I love her. How I was brought up with the best
 and the proudest in the Afrikaner. And I wonder about the
 responsibility of a Leader. Shouldn't he be establishing a space
 within which we can confront ourselves and our past? Shouldn't he
 bring to the table the Afrikaner's blunt honesty and fearlessness
 to grapple with the impossible? So that we can participate in the
 building of this country with self-respect and dignity? (Krog

And this brings us to the strategic importance of collective memory.

The evocation of memory, which was the Truth Commission's medium and method, was, as is well known, intended to promote individual healing so as to effect national healing. Yitzhak Laor, writing about Auschwitz, goes so far as to say that it is not the memories of the survivors that count but the collective memory. Moreover,
 There is no collective memory without pushing "awkward" elements
 into oblivion. A people's collective memory does not arise out of or
 by itself, certainly not in modern states. Collective memory is
 constituted by people with special interests, i.e., collective
 memory is a political act. (Laor nd:np)

The TRC was ostensibly apolitical, even-handed, comprising commissioners who represented a range of political affiliations and espousing the non-party-aligned philosophies of Christianity and African ubuntu (emphasized by Desmond Tutu in the hearings and in his memoir). Nevertheless, it was state funded and ultimately answerable to the state. The beginning (the hearings of the parliamentary Justice Portfolio Committee) and end (the narrator observes that the final report to be presented to the President has yet to be concluded) of the narrative of Country of My Skull, seemingly unwittingly, direct our attention to the involvement of the state. The focus of the TRC and its desired outcomes were profoundly political (though not party-political) and intended to bring all South Africans into the national fold. A similar recuperative longing is manifest in Country of My Skull, as is the related desire to suppress suspicions of political wheeling and dealing. When someone suggests that "there is a deal between the ANC and the Truth Commission" (Krog 1998:223) concerning concealment of the ANC government's continuation of the apartheid state's chemical weapons and perhaps nuclear programmes, the narrator does not want to know. And when a comrade suggests that Nelson Mandela was complicit in a cover-up of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's involvement in the murder of Stompie Seipei, she insists that she does not want to hear about it (1998:224).

Memory allows us to escape the tyranny of the present (Rubin 2006:12). One wants to ask then: what present needs are fulfilled by the ways in which collective memory is shaped? In Country of My Skull, Krog portrays a present that is punctuated with fear, the fear of whites of being the victims of violent criminals. At midnight on the family farm an urgent call for help bursts through on the radio. The entire extended family feels threatened. Everyone is required to be on high alert, even the nine-year-old who has to relay information from her mother, "standing on the roof of their house. From where she has a large part of the farm under surveillance with a night-vision scope", to her father, who is trying to track down the cattle thieves in his bakkie (Krog 1998:4). And, in another incident, when an unknown car arrives on Christmas Day, terror ripples through adults and children alike. The narrator/protagonist's amicable relationship with black colleagues (shown throughout the narrative) notwithstanding, she also depicts a present tainted by misunderstanding between black and white: the narrator cannot understand a black novelist's defense of his protagonist's support of two characters who murder a Jewish shopkeeper "Because black people must always stick together" (Krog 1998:12); nor can she understand a (black) colleague's view, a popular one, he tells her, "that stealing from whites is not actually stealing" (1998:13). The estrangement between black and white is seen also in the willful refusal of an old (white) friend to recognise black servants as fully human: "'Maids don't feel like other people about their children. [...] Maids don't get cold like white people. [... They] don't like washing'" (1998:190). There is also, of course, the narrator/protagonist's ubiquitous desire to be forgiven, to belong.

The memory of trauma drawn out by the Truth Commission, and drawn in to Krog's narrative in Country of My Skull, permits a sense that there are shared tragedies in our collective past which enable us, together, to rise above the traumatic past and an uncertain present.

Remembering and forgetting are so closely allied, in part, because when we narrativize the past, we cannot avoid the selective effects of plot. Collective memory (and Country of My Skull contributes to that) tends to create iconic heroes and villains, representing broadly characterised forces of good and evil. The narrative is charged with the authorial narrator's ardent, unwavering respect for Archbishop Tutu (resulting more than once in self-abasement), with her ultimate admiration for the Commissioners (after having been highly critical of many of them) and by reiterated identifications with repentant Afrikaners. The narrative implies that their confessions to horrific deeds are the prerequisite to a brighter, ethically sound future. De Klerk's failure to confess is juxtaposed with the remorse of the Vlakplaas murderers.
 I look at the Leader in front of me, an Afrikaans leader. And
 suddenly I know: I have more in common with the Vlakplaas five than
 with this man. Because they have walked a road, and through them
 some of us have walked a road. And hundreds of Afrikaners are
 walking this road-on their own with their own fears and shame and
 guilt. And some say it, and most just live it. We are so utterly
 sorry. We are deeply ashamed and gripped with remorse. But hear us.
 We are from here. We will live it right--here--with you, for you.
 (Krog 1998:99)

I am reminded here of Laor's argument that any system needs to see its own history as a process of success, by making life the proof of why the dead had to die, "to arise tomorrow morning with a new song in their heart" (np). Instead of turning to the past repetitively (which is, Freud has shown, an obstacle to remembering), the past should be recalled for the sake of the future. We have, Ricoeur argues, a duty to remember and a duty to forget (1998:11). The duty to remember is a duty to use the past as lessons for future generations; the duty to forget is a duty to go beyond anger and hatred (even though they--along with our fears--may, as Osborne suggests, haunt our dreams). This is at the heart of the ethics of memory. This is at the heart of Krog's meditation on truth and memory in the service of the new nation she so desires.


Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised edition. London and New York: Verso.

Blight, David. 2006. In: "Individual and Collective Memory: Conceptual Foundations". Workshop/Statements.html: 2-3. [1.9.2008]

Boraine, Alex. 2000. A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Brodzki, Bella. 2001. "Testimony." In: Margaretta Jolly (ed). Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms Vol.2. London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Buur, Lars. 2002. "Monumental Historical Memory: Managing Truth in the Everyday Work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission". In: Deborah Posel and Graeme Simpson (eds). Commissioning the Past: Understanding South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press: 66-93.

Conway, Martin A. 1992. "Making Sense of the Past." In: Martin A Conway, David C Rubin, Hans Spinnler and Willem A Wagenaar (eds). Theoretical Perspectives on Autobiographical Memory. Dordrecht, Boston and London: Kluwer Academic Publishers: 3-10.

Edelstein, Jillian. 2001. Truth & Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. UK and Milpark: Granta and M&G Books.

Felman, Shoshana. 1992. "Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching." In: Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (eds). Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York and London: Routledge: 1-56.

Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. 2003. A Human Being Died that Night: A Story of Forgiveness. Cape Town: David Philip.

Khoisan, Zenzile and KI Rolfes. 2001. Jakaranda Time: An Investigator's View of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Observatory, SA: Garib Communications.

Krog, Antjie. 1998. Country of My Skull. Parklands, Johannesburg: Random House.

--2006. "The cook, the stew and the taster: Writing from Inside, Editing from Outside." Scrutiny2 11(2):91-96.

Laor, Yitzhak. "Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting--Review." [7.1.2008]

Laub, Dori. 1992. "Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening". In: Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (eds). Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York and London: Routledge: 57-74.

Moss, Laura. 2006. "'Nice Audible Crying': Editions, Testimonies, and Country of My Skull". Research in African Literatures 37(4): 85-104.

Orr, Wendy. 2000. From Biko to Basson: Wendy Orr's Search for the Soul of South Africa as a Commissioner of the TRC. Saxonwold, South Africa: Contra Press.

Osborne, John. 1991. Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography: Volume II, 1955-1966. London: Faber & Faber.

Renan, Ernest. 1990 [1882]. "What is a Nation?" Translated and annotated by Martin Thom. In: Homi K Bhabha (ed). Nation and Narration. London and New York: Routledge.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1998. "Memory and Forgetting." In: Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley (eds). Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge: 5-11.

Rubin, David. 2006. "Individual and Collective Memory: Conceptual Foundations". Workshop/Statements.html:12. [1.9.2008]

Sanders, Mark. 2000. "Truth, Telling, Questioning: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull, and Literature after Apartheid". Modern Fiction Studies 46(1):13-41.

Saunders, Christopher and Nicholas Southey. 1998. A Dictionary of South African History.Cape Town: David Philip.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. 1999. No Future Without Forgiveness. London, Sydney, Auckland and Johannesburg: Rider.


(1.) The terms 'testifier' and 'witness' are often used interchangeably, for instance in law the witness is the one who testifies to what was seen, as in the term 'witness testimony'. The terms may, however, be used to designate two distinct roles: a person testifies and the listener, the auditor, becomes what Laub (1992:69) calls the second-person witness to the testimony and the crisis recounted therein. The psychoanalytic situation is apposite: "it takes two to witness the unconscious" (Felman 1992:15). Those who heard, watched or read the TRC testimonies were called upon to witness (in a performative sense) the testimonies. Thus, to testify is not merely a matter of transferring information, but rather an act which transforms both first and second person witnesses (Felman 1992: 53-4).

(2.) Sanders also remarks on the highly mediated nature of the testimonies, referring to "a continuum of testimonial agency" (2000:23). In Krog's TRC memoirs, as in those of other TRC memoirists, there is (perhaps necessitated by narrative and plot) a suppression of the constituent effects of the social environment in which the hearings took place, the relationship between questioner and witness, "the kinds of questions asked, the language(s) spoken, and the fact of translation and transcription" (Sanders 2000:23).

(3.) Laura Moss has written an incisive critique of the American edition of Country of My Skull and its reception by a global audience "as presenting the truth of South African history, rather than the narrator's truth, with the whole process of mediation quietly passed over, the fictionalization overlooked, and the admittance of 'lies' almost completely ignored" (2006:87-8).

(4.) This acknowledgment prefaces the conversation:
 The following conversation, and those in the final two chapters, are
 based on Het Loon van de Schuld, by Ian Buruma; Guilt and Shame,
 edited by Herbert Morris; Imagination, Fiction, Myth, by Johan
 Degenaar; and After the Catastrophe, by Carl Jung. (Krog 1998:237)

(5.) For a wonderfully concise account of Afrikaner Nationalism see Saunders and Southey (1998:6-7).

(6.) I cannot see any justification for Moss's claim that the first-person narrator "is both Afrikaner and English" (2006:91).

(7.) Although Moss overstates the case, arguing that there are multiple characters adopted by the first-person narrator (Antjie, Antjie Krog, Antjie Samuel, and Antjie Somers--the first and last seem to me to be dubious as distinct characters adopted by the narrator), she does make a valid point when she states that the narrator/protagonist is "in dialogue and in conflict. Having multiple names is a way of signaling the multiple roles played by the narrators in the text--one who remains faithful to the truth, one who mediates the truth, and one who deals mythopoetically with the truth" (2006:91).

(8.) There is a strong case to be made for white South Africans as a critical part of the intended readership. Krog's "aggressive and agitated" reaction to the book's international success supports such a supposition. She is quoted as questioning whether a non-South African would understand the narrative because it is "so South African, so Afrikaans, so white ..." (cited in Moss 2006:91).

(9.) Gobodo-Madikizela takes a similar position in her book on Vlakplaas leader Eugene de Kock. The title, A Human Being Died That Night, applies ambiguously to the people who were killed by de Kock and his ilk as well as to the killers themselves.

(10.) Of course, it does this and more: Moss is critical of what she sees as the narrative's "privileging [of] the narrator's responses over the stories told [...] and for turning individual's stories into allegories of the nation" (2006:99).

(11.) In Country of My Skull we are reminded that among others IFP leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and ex-Prime Minister, PW Botha, refused to apply for amnesty, and that one hundred ANC members "were stealthily granted indemnity" (1998:7) prior to the TRC proceedings beginning.
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Author:Coullie, Judith Lutge
Publication:Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jul 1, 2007
Previous Article:Antjie Krog's role as translator: a case study of strategic positioning in the current South African literary poly-system.
Next Article:The ethics of infidelity in Country of My Skull.

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