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).
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.
Long Night’s journey into day is a story of truth, social justice, reconciliation, and undoubtedly forgiveness. For me, watching this documentary and seeing the awful things done and the pain the families faced was heartbreaking. I was angry watching the men put on trial for the things they did, as well as seeing the mothers wail and cry over their dead sons. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have the person that killed one of your family members sitting right in front of you asking to be set free. Although this film made me angry and heartbroken, it also gave me the ability to rethink the wrongs of others and my thoughts on vengeance. The families in this film were able to face the truth, the people who hurt them, and heal from it.
In the books we’ve been reading (Eichmann In Jerusalem, Death and the Maiden, etc.), we were faced with the ideas of revenge and retributive justice, but none of them mentioned forgiveness or restoration. Where retributive justice can be effective, I think letting the past be the past and restoring justice can build a stronger community. We want those who hurt us to pay but this documentary shows that forgiveness is the first step for healing and moving on. At the end of the documentary, one of the mothers who was talking to her son’s killer said, “forgive those who have sinned against you,” something this film has highlighted and something everyone can take notes on.
There were many parts of the film Long Night’s Journey Into Day that were extremely shocking and horrifyingly true. These accounts of violence during the fight against apartheid presents the question of whether or not the crimes committed during this violent period, on both sides, are capable of being forgiven. Something that I noticed during this film is that during this time of violence, both parties had the same basic mindset: it’s us or them, kill or be killed, black or white. What the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) did well, in my opinion, was provide an understanding environment for those accused of crimes, especially those fighting apartheid. Whether or not justice was served by the commission is questionable, as seen through the hearings of those seeking amnesty and the interviews of the families who lost someone dear to them. The film left a strange, unsettling feeling as the answer is not clear. Justice is not clear cut, not black and white, rather it is a spectrum that depends on the parties involved and the crimes committed. As a side note, one thing I thought was particularly interesting was the statistic that out of the many people who applied for amnesty, 80% of those were black, which was such a jarring statistic to me since the white people in South Africa were the ones in power and they were the ones facilitating the large scale oppression of the majority population.