Country of My Skull

by Antjie Krog

by Joel Smith

Last week, the feature film In My Country (starring Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche) opened in limited release across the United States. The film is based on Country of My Skull, the 1999 memoir by Antjie Krog, a white Afrikaner poet, who recalls her time as the chief radio broadcaster covering the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Created by the South African government shortly after the fall of apartheid in 1994, the commission had a two-pronged purpose. The first was to provide a public venue for the victims of apartheid-era political violence.

For more than a year Krog listened in, sending radio stories out across the airwaves, as victims faced their perpetrators across hot and crowded courtrooms. They begged for apologies, offered forgiveness, unburdened themselves of the trauma they'd carried for so long. Krog chronicles dozens of those stories here.

My son was shot and nobody told me. I looked everywhere and nobody told me my son was in the mortuary ... they later gave me his clothes. His T-shirt looked as if it had been eaten by rats.

Halfway through its lifespan, the commission shifted into its second purpose -- granting amnesty to perpetrators of political violence who would publicly admit their crimes. While representatives from the major political parties hedged, scores of individuals came forward. White policemen who raided and killed in black townships. Black resistance fighters who terrorized both the white and black communities. Rape, arson, torture, "necklacing."

I shot Charles, and Sam shot Shabalala. I then threw Charles' body into the river ... I then assisted Sam in doing the same to Shabalala's body. Branches were broken off the trees and the bloodstains wiped away.

This is ugly stuff, and the book is, at times, almost unbearably painful to read. But the testimonies are bound together by larger questions about morality and truth, as Krog, using the best of her poetic sensibilities, struggles with the rest of her country to understand the madness and violence and injustice of the land they feel so deeply in their own skulls.

This recognizable personal drama is at the core of both Krog's memoir and the film. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have been uniquely South African, but the voices of the oppressed and the oppressor are all too familiar. Read the book. See the film. You'll hate them both.

Publication date: 03/17/05

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