The Development of the Idea of Testimony

For my double blog post, I watched the classic film 12 Angry Men starring Henry Fonda. The movie is a simple one, but not everybody has a taste for classic cinema, so to sum up, it takes place almost entirely in a single small room with 12 men who are jurors in a case. The trial is over and they now have to decide what to do with the defendant, a boy accused of stabbing his father to death. 11 Men initially are completely convinced of his guilt, and one man refuses to say that he is guilty. Because the jury’s decision must be unanimous, a debate ensues and over time the jurors are slowly, one by one, convinced that the boy cannot be declared guilty. The film ends with the unanimous decision of Not Guilty.

I love the movie and think it’s fantastically acted and written, but it’s also deeply tied to the themes we have been discussing in this class. First off, it seems to bear most resemblance among the texts we’ve talked about, with Aeschylus’ The Furies. Both center around murder trials and contain a jury, testimonies, a judge, and other elements we associate with a trial. 

However, our information of the actual trial comes from the reminiscences of the jurors. We don’t actually see it ourselves. We only see their debate. The most debated about subject that we get, by far, is that of the testimonies given. Testimony is something we have talked about a lot in this class, and 12 Angry Men deals with it in interesting ways. 

We see testimonies given in The Furies, and those testimonies are never doubted or even really examined. Everything that everyone says is the truth and we are never given reason to believe otherwise. We dealt again with the issue of testimony in Death and The Maiden, where testimonies are now in doubt because people’s intentions are now severely in doubt. because of severe emotional stress and having a vested interest in one outcome of the case or another, we can never really be sure wether to believe the two testimonies given about the torture and rape that is being discussed. The witnesses may be lying to get vengeance, or to protect their own hide. We see testimony again crop up as a subject in all of our studies about South Africa and the TRC. In exchange for testimony of the truth of past events, amnesty is granted to those who perpetrated terrible crimes, but we see in Country of My Skull that testimonies often conflict even among people who participated in the exact same event. Testimony is unreliable because people have different perceptions and memory itself is often unreliable. 

12 Angry Men takes this a step further. Testimony again is viewed as being unreliable, but for various reasons. The testimony of the boy, saying that he was at the movies when the murder occurred, is instantly doubted for the same reason testimony was doubted in Death and the Maiden, He could potentially be lying simply to save his own skin. The testimony of the woman who ‘witnessed’ the murder from her apartment across the way is in doubt for the same reason testimony was doubted in one of the events of Country of My Skull, the reliability of her perception and memory was in doubt. 

The man who lived on the floor below the murder has his testimony doubted for an entirely new reason all together. When it becomes apparent from the facts that it is EXTREMELY improbable that the man could possibly have heard or seen what he claims to have heard or seen, the question arises of why? Why is this false testimony being given? It is speculated that the man simply is taking his chance to be important. He has no vested interest in this case, one way or another. He stands to gain or lose nothing by either conviction or acquittal. It would seem that this is the ideal situation from which to expect truthful and unbiased testimony. But 12 Angry Men points out to us that even in such a case, testimony is unreliable. 12 Angry Men is a film that repeatedly makes the point that you simply cannot trust testimony as unchallengeable.

This is is a very troubling and disturbing thing when testimony is such a foundational part of our legal system, and even seems to have its roots as far back as the Greeks and Aeschylus. In that text, testimony was never in question. but the class has slowly built on this idea of testimony as evidence until now, in 12 Angry Men, we get a very similar situation played back to us with a lot more nuance. Logical deduction and reasoning take the place of testimony as the way truth is determined. The testimonies are shown to be unreliable by a process of debate and logical conclusion such as “The old man could not possibly have heard the murder because there was a train passing by that would have covered up the sound.” or “The woman could not have seen the murder because it was dark and she was not wearing her glasses.” 

The unreliability of testimony is a central theme in this movie and I think it is interesting how the idea has developed progressively through the texts we have examined in class. 

Distinction between a story and the truth

One thing that makes the TRC testimonies so emotionally effective is the uniqueness of each story and what version of the truth they tell. Antjie Krog examines the personalization of individual’s stories especially when recounting the murder of Richard Mutase and his wife. What was particularly interesting about this story is that there are four different narratives of the events that happened on the night of the murders. The discrepancies between these stories seem to undermine the truth: the truth of the dead, the truth of the survivor, and the mission of the TRC. Through the analysis of these stories, Krog seems to be critical of the TRC and how the stories told, especially by those who committed violent crimes and advanced apartheid, alter their truth to cater towards the audience present at the hearings, as well as the “imagined audience”, who are those that these narrators think will appreciate the personalized story the most.

What was interesting to me was that in chapter 8 there seemed to be a distinction between the concept of a “story” and the “truth”. The stories told in regard to the Mutase murders are the best example of this because while the four stories have overlapping components, it is clear that the truth is missing when the stories start to differ from one another. The stories become more about proving which perpetrator is lying, versus what is the truth of the situation, which results in a lack of justice for the victims and their families.

Reconciliation vs Violence

While reading Country of My Skull, one of the lines that jumped off of the page for me was on page 77; the line reads, “South Africa’s shameful apartheid past has made people lose their humanity. It dehumanized people to such an extent that they treated fellow human beings worse than animals. And this must change for ever.” After reading the many stories of the ways in which victims were tortured and killed, this line held a strong weight regarding the pervasiveness of dehumanization that occurred in South Africa. 

Similarly, this line also brought to mind the same concept of the cycle of violence that was illustrated in Death and the Maiden. This made me wonder what would have happened to Paulina if she was allowed a similar opportunity to “reconcile;” from my perspective, Paulina’s radical behavior was as a result of there being no opportunity for her to obtain closure of any kind. For this reason, she took the situation in her own hands and acted in a way that was significantly more violent than what likely would have occurred at the hands of the government or a higher authority. The weight of what happened to Paulina was, to me, a result of the fact that the atrocities committed against her were dismissed because they did not end in death and she had no option for reconciliation, revenge, or closure. In the TRC, on the other hand, victims who were both dead and alive were given the chance to obtain “reconciliation.” I wonder, if this had occurred for Paulina, would her appetite for revenge have been curbed?

From my perspective, the greatest strength of the TRC was the opportunity to offer acknowledgement to the victims of violence. The system was undeniably imperfect, but it is my opinion that, if this same opportunity has been offered to Paulina, much of the violence that ensued would have been avoided. Instead, she was repeatedly accused of being mentally ill and told to move on from the incident while simultaneously being denied any opportunity for closure; in this situation, it is no wonder that she reacted in a violent and irrational way. The only way to exit the cycle of violence is to provide acknowledgement of past wrongdoings and agree to move away from them – though imperfectly, I think the TRC did this well.

Truth Commission vs Eichmann

When reading the first chapter of Country of My Skull, I could not help but think about our class discussion about the first chapter of Eichmann in Jerusalem. In our discussion, we talked about how the courtroom in Eichmann in Jerusalem is set up like a theater which takes away from the complexity of the situation. This is seen when the prosecution tries to paint Eichmann as an evil mastermind who orchestrated the whole Holocaust in order to create a sense of sensationalism which is simply not correct and it undermines the whole legal process.

In the first chapter of Country of My Skull, the exact opposite atmosphere is set up.The Truth Commission is extremely complex and anything but simple. Justice Dullah Omar states the Truth Commission started because “a strong feeling that some mechanism must be found to deal with all violations in a way which would ensure that we put the country on a sound moral basis” (8). The commission acknowledges the complexity of the past political policy and understands that a magnitude of people were hurt by these policies. Most importantly they realize that not one person is responsible but that a long history of political policies and politicians are to be blamed. There is not one person to put the blame on because apartheid represents a whole political system, and it would be unfair to the victims for the process to be rushed. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, the court is less concerned with finding out the truth and more concerned about being the court that tires and finds guilty a member of the Nazi regime. Having this scapegoat takes away from the truth and the complexity of the Holocaust. Former commissioner of police, General Johan van der Merwe talks about how he was an enforcer of the law but never an advocate. He says that, “it is not the police who came up with apartheid but the politicians” (6).

Putting the “truth” in Truth Commission

Truth Commissions are weird in that their purpose is not to seek justice. While crimes were committed, they are prosecuting people for those crimes. Knowing that there are many paths to reconciliation in circumstances like these, I wonder why South Africa chose to use a Truth Commission. I think that Krog deals with the purpose and effectiveness in the book, focusing on different ideas. If justice isn’t the goal here, then what is? I see a few answers presented in the novel to explain what the goal is for truth commissions. 

Narrative: The novel focuses on the importance of stories. One of the operations of the truth commission is to give the survivors a space to tell their stories. It also works to tell the stories of those who aren’t around to tell them. Krog gives herself this job saying, “I snatch you from the death of forgetfulness. I tell your story, complete your ending,” (Krog 38). She also focuses whole chapters like “Truth Is a Woman” on just relaying stories. The truth commission is a place for those affected by the crimes to be heard. 

Truth: The most straight-forward and simple answer is that the truth commission is there to find out what actually happened without the threat of prosecution. Krog explains that there is no one version of the truth. The commission can’t define a truth of what happened, but instead it allows people to accept their own version of truth. It presents the stories and creates a system in which people can analyze and understand what they believe to be true. 

Reconciliation: This last purpose is the strangest. While the definition, as explained by Krog, is supposed to be restored, that isn’t possible here. Krog says that “there is nothing to go back to, no previous state or relationship one would wish to restore,” (Krog 143). This is because the system has been a broken one. South Africa can’t restore a broken system and the truth commission allows it to move forward rather than reentering the cycle of violence of the system. Krog explains that reconciliation is actually a part of it and it is meant to be more of a transformation- a way to understand the past, not to accept it, and to move forward from that understanding so that this situation doesn’t happen again. 

While I think that Krog is making these observations about the purpose, it is even more difficult to understand if this is what the victims want and are getting from the truth commission. For example, Krog talks about the people who are sitting there and listening to the atrocities about capital punishment yet still call for its use. It’s complicated and it’s hard, but South Africa specifically chose a truth commission over other forms of closing and Krog attempts to find out why.

Trauma Inflicted Upon Journalists in Country of my Skull

“We sleep between one and two hours a night. We live on chocolate and potato chips. After five years without cigarettes, I start smoking again” (Krog, 51).

This quote written by Krog is seen in chapter three of Country of my Skull as she explains the emotional conflict that journalists like her are forced to deal with throughout their careers reporting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The film, Long Night’s Journey Into Day did not address the emotional burden brought upon the reporters. This was something I had thought about; how it must be extremely difficult to put one’s emotions aside while having to film and interview innocent people who are experiencing a very painful level of grief. I was so glad that Krog touched upon this in Country of my Skull because it was something that really interested me. I am a particularly sensitive and empathetic person, so I do not see myself as fit for the role that Krog is able to fulfil, although she does struggle.

There is a sense of strength that such journalists are required to possess in order to perform their jobs efficiently. Krog was affected by the stories in such an extreme way that she was drawn to return to a past addiction portrays the severe emotional trauma that comes with being a journalist. Krog shows that the amount of emotional strength it takes to quit an addiction like smoking cigarettes can be easily lost when an emotional trauma of equal or greater force interferes.

Krog continues to write, “we develop techniques to lessen the impact. We no longer go into the halls where the hearings take place, because of the accumulated grief. We watch on the monitors provided. The moment someone starts crying, we start writing/scribbling/doodling” (Krog, 51). She shows readers that they are forced to come up with ways to deal with the trauma inflicted upon them. I thought it was very interesting that she also wrote that the journalists are, in a way, each other’s therapists; as they are going through the same thing, they are there for each other to ease the intense emotional burden.

The emotional burden of being a journalist and having to report on such sensitive cases is something I have not thought about prior to watching Long Night’s Journey Into Day and reading Country of my Skull. Learning about this actually gave me a much better appreciation for the work that these journalists do. Their careers are not just reciting information about cases; they are often faced with hardships and are forced to find their own ways of putting their emotions aside to lessen their own agony.

The Role of the Journalist : Covering the TRC Hearings

William Tradd Stover

This focuses on a more subtle idea that the text presents: journalism. Since Krog had that position and was forced to deal with the realities that came with it, I wanted to explore this concept a bit in thinking about what a journalist would have gone through.

In Long ‘Night’s Journey Into Day’, the viewer is able to see the stories unfold in front of their own eyes. In some of the shots from the film, reporters are seen crowded around like in any other big case or event, avidly listening and almost misplaced in how they are dispersed. In this book, the reader is given the clear perpective of a journalist during this time, one that has real, complex emotions about what is going on.

As I think about this work being largely made up of a journalist’s viewpoint, I think first about what having that title entails. Usually, at least in America, people hope that reporting will be fair, balanced, and rather objective in most cases. In this case, it is hard to fathom what it must have been like for someone covering the cases and hearing testimonies to do their job ‘properly’ and objectively. There is a feeling of anger toward foreign news people that just want a story and do not have the same sort of passion for what is actually going on behind the camera lens and notepads. It is almost impossible to report on these hearings without some sort of emotion poking through in some form.

Krog is in a peculiar position given that she is an Afrikaner and is forced to deal with her nation’s history of injustice and gruesome behavior. The TRC’s hearings were obviously excruciating for the people involved, and having to report on such a thing is a really interesting and intimidating concept. I imagine that it was difficult for Krog to place herself into a group during this time of attempted reconciliation, being an Afrikaner woman. Was she responsible in some way for these spiteful acts? Was she different because of her womanhood? How could she do her part in giving victims the respect that they deserve?

When I think of all the media present at the hearings, I think of a certain picture that I looked up that really almost gives me chills. It is a photo of Jeff Benzien reenacting what he would have done to torture a black man during the apartheid rule. It is a really jarring sight, and I can not help but to think of all the people in the room that witnessed that. Something like that represents years of injustice and division, and it can be dwindled down to a click on a camera: fascinating.

This post is a little all over the place, but I was really intrigued by so many things. The ideas of journalism as a means of story telling, identity, self-placement, and ownership really struck me.

Country of My Skull: The Personal insights of Krog and Their Impact on the Story She Tells

In the journalist’s approach to telling a story of the truth commission post-South Africa apartheid, we not only get the story of those affected via perpetrators and victims, but we also get an inside look into how these stories effected spectators as well. Krog provides accounts of both victims and perpetrators and provides her own account of how their stories affect her. With this, we get a perspective of someone who is not directly involved with crimes committed in a dark time for South Africans. Even Krog, an outsider to the apartheid, is heavily effected by the heinous ongoing of crimes that happened to so many innocent citizens. Krog writes,” No poetry should come forth 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,” (p.66). These lines give the reader a sense of what it was like for Krog to have been able to put these stories into a novel. It shows struggle within the mind of not knowing what to do with information that is not necessarily the business of Krog, but such a series of horrid injustices, that she wants the whole world to know about it. This internal struggle comes from how much Krog has involved herself with these stories and truly listened and felt sympathy for the citizens who have suffered so much loss. As a reader, one reads these stories that Krog tells of other people’s misfortunes and cannot help but to feel as if they have been punched in the gut. This novel is a telling of grievances written by someone who is doing their own grieving over the situation at a distance. Krog worries by writing what she does that she will exploit the pain of all of these people. By admitting this to the reader it is so clear that that is not at all the message she is giving when she writes of her own sorrows from listening to these people’s countless stories. Krog brings an emotional empathy for these people grieving. She writes, “It is not so much the deaths, and the names of the dead, but the web of infinite sorrow woven around them,” (p.45).