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Monday 4 June 2018

Restorative Justice, Gender and the National Psyche: A Review of Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa

Mwahaki King
Autumn 2015
B.A. Diplomacy and World Affairs || Occidental College
M.A. Law and Diplomacy ||  The Fletcher School, Tufts University 

Restorative Justice, Gender and the National Psyche: A Review of Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa 

Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgeiveness in the New South Africa, is a searing literary and psychological analysis of the complex nature of the apartheid system in South Africa. As a renowned poet and journalist, Krog expertly weaves prose and poetry with her journalistic coverage and personal experiences to examine the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. Krog also insightfully brings the notion of gender into her analysis, a feature that is often lacking in examinations of South Africa’s TRC. 

Often, the immediate legal response to human rights violations is retributive justice. However, depending on the nature of the conflict, this can sometimes be a flaw in the discussion surrounding the legal repercussions of international law and human rights abuses. The apartheid regime systematically breached laws related to the basic human rights of its citizens and the democratically elected African National Congress (ANC) government chose to address the legal aspect of these human rights transgressions through an innovative system of restorative justice. It was believed that such a system was more intrinsic to traditional African principles [1]. Thus, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was born.

The TRC in South Africa emerged in response to the oppressive apartheid regime that was active in South Africa for almost fifty years[2]. It is evident that given the history of South Africa the nation as a whole was exhausted from the state of war and struggle that had existed under apartheid. This, coupled with the inherently aggressive and insidiously brutal nature of apartheid argued for a radically different system of justice. If the country was to move forward from the atrocities of apartheid, an attempt to reverse the internalized nature of violence permeating South African society needed to be employed and the restorative system clearly favored this endeavor. The philosophy was encapsulated best by Archbishop Desmond Tutu; one of the Commission’s dynamic architects (the other most notably being Nelson Mandela) when he said ''you can only be human in a humane society. If you live with hatred and revenge in your heart, you dehumanize not only yourself, but your community''[3] and that “We are not seeking to humiliate them [the perpetrators of human rights violations] or even persecute them…we’re saying that truth and lies and evil are things that matter and we must acknowledge them.”[4] 

As with all judiciary models, this system of restorative justice faced challenges and criticisms. Apart from the controversial inclusion of amnesties, and the exorbitant reliance the Commission placed on faith and the Catholic tradition of confession; the TRC has also faced criticisms regarding the parity between the trials of ANC militants and Afrikaner police, the lack of appropriate reparations for those who participated in the process and its gender-blind approach to investigations, a particular criticism that is more glaring today than it would have been in 1996. 

Country of My Skull provides a more gendered analysis of the horrors of apartheid than most of Krog’s contemporary commentators on the TRC. In a particularly powerful and harrowing chapter entitled “Truth is a Woman”, she outlines the limitations of South African law when defining rape, the gratuitous and deliberate acts of violence specifically meted out against women [5] under the regime and thus the few women willing to speak openly and testify about rape [6] and other forms of sexual violence that occurred. Additionally, Krog addresses how notions of race, masculinity and femininity interacted with disastrous consequences at the hands of apartheid perpetrators:
Mthintso [Chairperson of the Gender Commission] says a man who didn’t break under torture was respected by the police. “There was a sense of respect, where torturers would even say: ‘He is a man’. But a woman’s refusal to bow down would unleash the wrath of the torturers. Because in their own discourse a woman, a black meid, a kaffermeid at that, had no right to have the strength to withstand them.”[7]

Krog’s work also cleverly notices and outlines the ways men manipulated language to distance themselves from the rape and sexual violence they experienced during apartheid. Often men, subsume these experiences within the vague rhetoric of “torture” rather than the explicit wording of rape:
Men don’t use the word “rape” when they testify. They talk about being sodomized, or about iron rods being inserted into them. In so doing, they make rape a women’s issue. By denying their own sexual subjugation to male brutality, they form a brotherhood with rapists that conspires against their own wives, mothers, and daughters [8]

Inevitably, the book is an extension of Krog and as such demonstrates her attempt to grapple with the extent of human cruelty, resistance and resilience; and ultimately to comprehend where she and fellow journalists, Afrikaners and black South Africans, victims and perpetrators would fit into the “new South Africa” that was to emerge in the wake of apartheid.

Krog, Antjie. Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa. New York: Three Rivers, 1998. Print.
Moyers, Bill.  Facing the Truth. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). 1999. Videocassette. 

1. As seen in the introduction to Krog’s work, “The final clauses of South Africa’s interim constitution read as follows: The adoption of this Constitution lays the secure foundation for the people of South Africa to transcend the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge. These can now be addressed on the basis that there is a need for understanding but not vengeance, a need for reparation but nor for retaliation, a need for ubuntu [the African philosophy of humanism] but not victimization” Antjie Krog. Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa. New York: Three Rivers, 1998. Print. Introduction vi.
2. Racial segregation began in South Africa under Dutch colonialism, but “Apartheid” as a government-mandated policy was institutionalized after the general election of 1948 and was not officially dismantled until 1994, with the success of the African National Congress (ANC) in the election of April 1994. 
3. Antjie Krog. Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa. New York: Three Rivers, 1998. Print. p. 143
4.  Bill Moyers. Facing the Truth. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). 1999. Videocassette.
5.  “‘Then things happened that could not happen to a man. Your sexuality was used to strip away your dignity, to undermine your sense of self…You had to strip in front of a whole range of policemen making remarks about your body. Women had to do star-jumps naked, breasts flying. Fallopian tubes were flooded until they burst; rats were pushed into vaginas…Women have been made to stand the whole day with blood flowing down and drying on their legs. Did they [torturers] gain strength from looking at their [women’s] blood? From asking you to drink your own blood?’ asks Mthintso [Chairperson of the Gender Commission]” pp.235-6. Krog
6. “Women who have been raped know that if they talk about it now in public, they will lose something again - privacy, maybe respect…Another deterrent is that some of the rapists hold high political positions today – so if you spoke out you would not only undermine the new government you fought for, but destroy your own possibilities of a future” pp. 239-40. Krog
7. Krog. p.236
8. Ibid. p. 240