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Force or Choice?

I was confused at first as to why Krog would include a story from her personal life in her accounts of the amnesty cases in Country of My Skull. The story of her brothers and the cattle thieves in Chapter 1 seemed unrelated to the topic of the book for me. That is, until her brother used the word ‘force’ and it reminded me of something in Long Night’s Journey into Day. When the film reviews the case of the Gugulethu 7, one of the perpetrators, Thapelo Mbelo, who was a part of the Vlakplass police force, says “I was forced to do it.”.  Mbelo is being confronted by the mothers and wives of the men who were killed. One of the women accuses him of selling his blood, giving up his black brothers and sisters in exchange for money. And he agrees, but he says he had to take orders and he is asking for forgiveness because he was the one being told, not the one doing the telling. One of the mothers says that he did not have to go against his own community but he still implies it was the government that ultimately ruled him to do the killings. Same with Robert Mcbride who was a policeman who bombed a restaurant and killed three women. He, too, says that he was pressured to do it and that he only wanted to assist in ending apartheid; he thought that the government was trustworthy. Both allude to the authority of the government as reason for their actions. But some, like the mothers of the Gugulethu 7, would argue however that in the end these men still had a choice, even if the government made it their only choice. 

Similarly, in Country of My Skull, Krog tells of how her brother was ‘forced’ to kill the cattle thief. He says, “He who is trespassing and breaking the law – by running away, forcing me to shoot him – he is forcing me to point a gun at another human being and pull the trigger… and I hate him for that,” (16). He claims that the thief is forcing him to do it. But again, it is technically his choice. He could have taken another course of action, but Krog suggests that this is the only choice that will make the thieves learn, because in their society there would be no repercussions for the thieves unless the brothers had taken action themselves. 

In all of these situations, the men claim to have been forced to kill another person. Though, some would argue that they had a choice. It may not have been an easy choice, but it was still a choice. The government provided them with the option of taking another person’s life, or risking the lives of their families. So is this still considered force?

The TRC – Just or Unjust?

While reading Krog’s “Country of My Skull” and watching the documentary “Long Night’s Journey into Day” I was very focused on the portrayal of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in both. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, prior to watching and reading about South Africa and the violence within its apartheid society, I was completely unaware of it. The TRC especially interested me, because it is very different from the justice system here in the United States. The United States is primarily focused on incarceration (although many say it is also focused on rehabilitation) – while in South Africa it is shown that the TRC’s main focus is reconciliation as a form of justice.

One thing I think is a positive about the TRC is that the victims often get some form of closure. In the documentary, the perpetrators were brought forth in front of the TRC and confessed their crimes to the families and friends of the victims. There were also scenes where the the families got to meet face to face with the perpetrators and gain some sort of explanation and apology for the crimes committed against their loved one. Similarly, in “Country of My Skull” the TRC was in place to offer some sort of reconciliation and to try and move forward from South Africa’s dark and disturbing past.

Krog tells a narrative of her experience reporting on the TRC, and although the purpose of the TRC is supposed to be positive, there are many upsetting and unjust scenes told within her novel. In fact, in the introduction Krog states “And while some victims and survivors of the apartheid government say their agony won’t end so long as perpetrators get amnesty and victims get next to nothing (reparation, for those who qualify, comes to less than $200 per victim), others say that learning how and where their loved ones met their end has provided a certain closure, a measure of peace” (pg 10). This brings up the question if the TRC really does provide justice or if it is inherently unjust. 

Pursuit of Justice or Vengeance?

The gruesome documentary, Long Night’s Journey Into Day, takes a look at the apartheid that took place in South Africa from 1948-1994. Before watching this documentary, I had no idea what the apartheid was and I knew no information about it. I think it is very interesting that the creation and implementation of the apartheid was done by white people, yet 80% of the 7,000 perpetrators who applied for amnesty were black. The fact that the majority of the people who applied for amnesty were black from a law that was instituted to be racist towards black people, goes to show that the black were fighting against the inequality and injustice they were faced with on a day to day basis; however, I found myself torn between looking at the actions of the blacks as fighting back for justice, or violently seeking vengeance . 

To say I was torn on my viewpoints of the actions taken during the apartheid would be an understatement. The first story told of Amy Biehl, the American student killed in 1993, was a pretty sad story to watch and listen to. What really struck me was the fact that her parents were so accepting of what had happened, and did not hold any animosity towards the men or their families. The parents were so forgiving towards the mothers of the convicted men, which is a very powerful message to send, and is fundamentally what the TRC was created for. I personally felt some levels of hostility towards the men because of the fact that they went after and murdered an innocent woman simply because she was white and white people were their oppressor; it was killing for the sake of killing. On the flipside, the second case with the “Cradock 4,” was a complete display of injustice and racism against blacks by the police. The four men were out to attend the United Democratic Front when they were approached by police and killed. This was also pretty hard to take in, and to see the outcry of the community for the wrongful death of these men. The cop that came forward for amnesty, Eric Taylor, believed it was his “duty” to attack them, which again, was nothing but wrong and racist. 

Around this point in time, in the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting against blatant displays of racism as well through peaceful protests and was successful. Looking at how MLK went about handling the injustice black Americans faced, it makes me question whether or not the blacks in South Africa could have taken the same approach. But on the other side of that, they not only were faced with inequality, but were also being killed, so desperate times can influence desperate measures, however I believe the line was crossed into vengeful action when innocent people were being murdered for the sake of making a statement.

The Consequences of Truth

Long Night’s Journey Into Day is a film that is well-described solely by its title; it chronicles the stories of four South Africans seeking amnesty in the aftermath of apartheid. Out of the four stories that were told, the first one was the one that had the most impact on me. Amy Biehl’s death was violent, unwarranted, and utterly unfair; despite this fact, Amy’s parents were able to forgive, and even offer comfort, to their daughter’s killer. This was able to be achieved because Amy’s parents understood the deep struggles being experienced by the killers and the actions that led them to take Amy’s life; although it was certainly unwarranted, the fact that both Amy’s murderer and her parents were able to find forgiveness reflected the TRC’s effectiveness in achieving its goals of reconciliation. It was through the full explanation of the truth that, in some of the cases shown, both sides were able to understand the motivations that fueled their actions. 

Despite the successes of Amy Biehl’s case, others were not as successful. The caveat of obtaining amnesty was that one must expose the full truth of what occurred; Robert McBride was repeatedly criticized by the sister of one of the individuals he killed in a bomb attack. Her frustration is contrasted by Robert’s own, in which he expresses his anger at having never received apologies for the oppression he faced. In the fourth portion of the film, in which it goes over the story of the “Guguleti 7,” it is revealed that one of the police officers that murdered the black activists was also black. The mothers of those that are murdered were profoundly distraught and significantly less forgiving than others had been. Their anger is magnified by the fact that he sold out and killed his “own blood.” Mbelo himself offers little comfort; in reference to the murders, he states that “It felt like a day’s work had been done.” This, to me, displayed the full nature of truth. Although it offered forgiveness and comfort in some cases, in others, it only showed the full depth of the depravity that permeates human society.