Crying and lying on the road to truth

South Africa's `rainbow nation' found not a crock of gold but a can of worms. Christopher Hope looks inside Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog Jonathan Cape, pounds 16.99, 304pp
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THERE EXISTED in South Africa, from 1996 to 1998, a panel called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It became known as the TRC - because everything in South Africa is stripped down to bare initials. The Commission held public hearings across the country. Those who had suffered under the old regime were invited to tell their stories, and claim redress. And those responsible were encouraged to own up.

Antjie Krog followed the TRC as a radio reporter, and it gripped her body and soul. The TRC was a kind of of stock-taking into the mountain of damaged goods the old regime left behind. The Commission was also one of the oddest bodies ever to lumber across the South African landscape. It was built of all the colours of what used to be called "the rainbow nation" - until people found the rainbow led not to a crock of gold but to a can of worms, and the expression fell into disuse.

It was led by a bishop, Desmond Tutu, and ran, it seems, on tears, rhetoric and adrenalin. When the Commissioners were not horrified by the evidence, they were horrified with each other. They regularly broke down and wept. Or called each other "racists". Or, worse still, "liberals" - and, in the new South Africa, that's an even dirtier word than it was in the old South Africa.

Reading about the Commission in the Afrikaans press, I sometimes got the idea that it was seen as lynch party led by a black bishop in a frock. Sceptical Afrikaners called it the "Crying and Lying Commission".

The TRC looked at the years between 1960 until 1993 - the age of High Apartheid. The period was arbitrary, but one must start somewhere. Start at the beginning and you would have to go back three centuries to the first Dutch settlers in the Cape, who bought a gang of slaves, plenty of whips, and retired to the shade of a thorn tree. The British took it over from there. And, finally, the Afrikaners turned it into the state religion.

Antjie Krog is an Afrikaner and this adds a fine edge to her telling. Her book is less about the victims of one of the cruellest and most stupid forms of blood-religion ever devised than about the anguish of many Afrikaners. Shame is what they feel, she says shrewdly, but not guilt. She is right, as any cursory reading of the white nationalist papers will show. Alas, very few people read the Afrikaans press.

But she is mistaken when she says that the TRC made whites aware of what had been done in their name. Let us dispose of the canard that some people "didn't know". It was almost impossible not to know what was going on. You could not escape it if you wanted to. Apartheid was never a dirty little secret. It was for many people as natural as breathing.

The deal went something like this. Afrikaners ran the country; English- speakers went into business. Good South Africans were rewarded with rugby matches. Bad South Africans went to jail. Those who disagreed with the regime were exiled, jailed, banned, pushed from high windows, bombed , shot and hanged. The people who ran the show were proud of it. And most whites not only knew how the show was run - they approved.

But the TRC at least provoked an assault on the collective loss of memory. Businessmen and judges, for example, now deny aiding and abetting the regime. Yet back in the old days it was as hard to find a captain of industry who did not support the regime as it is these days finding one who admits doing so. It is claimed that judges never supported the regime. But there was no need to: their judgements did it for them.

Appearing before the Commission were the foot-soldiers of apartheid: the torturers, interrogators, gunmen, informers, bombers and contract killers. But what of the big fish, those figures called in South African cliche-babble the "major players"? The white leaders who promoted the murder programmes; or the ANC commanders who sent bombers into shopping malls? They regretted past "mistakes", dodged and weaved, or refused to testify. And blamed the "other" side.

Black and white politicians did what they do best. It is the old South African impulse - when in doubt, form a cartel and duff up the opposition.

Perhaps it does not matter. Country of My Skull is worth reading for the stories told by those who suffered most. Bereaved wives, fathers, lovers and children speak of their loss and their pain in voices so free of hatred that one can only marvel. Their evidence makes this one of the most remarkable books to come out of South Africa for a long time.

Antjie Krog did not cover the final few months of the Commission's life. Disillusion spread. Truth, as Pontius Pilate knew, is a dodgy little number to pin down - and reconciliation fared not much better. Poll after poll showed black and white further apart after the Commission wound down than before it started.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission began, in the eyes of some, as the government's creature. But faced with unpalatable truths about ANC atrocities, the government muttered darkly about shelving the final report. Tutu, as chairman, said he would go to jail first. It was just like old times. The TRC managed, in the end, to upset just about everyone - and that is a rather wonderful achievement.

Christopher Hope publishes his new novel, `Signs of the Heart', in June