Post-apartheid South Africa’s rituals of admission and absolution
Civilized societies, an oxymoronic phrase to some observers, choose to deal with the aftermath of large-scale violence in different ways. Sometimes there is an attempt at formal closure, as in the Nuremburg trials. In the case of U.S.-funded countries that murder their own to advance American agendas, there is rarely resolution, only the occasional sight of some decrepit Latin American “strongman” being declared too ill to pay for his crimes. South Africa, where apartheid reigned for 40 years (preceded by many more years of informal racial terror), approached the problem from an unprecedented angle.
In 1994, after apartheid collapsed, the government formed the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) to offer amnesty to political criminals, declared and otherwise, from both sides of the struggle. Unlike the savage meting out of “justice” by the white Afrikaaner minority, the black majority would do this in an orderly and humane way: applicants had to confess their crimes at a public tribunal and, where possible, face the relatives of their victims. If they did this, and their crimes were affirmed as political (done in the context of apartheid), they could be eligible for amnesty.
Filmmakers Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann got extraordinary access to these tribunals and their participants for Long Night’s Journey into Day. Mingling news footage, interviews, and scenes from the “trials,” this documentary – a favorite at Sundance this year – is both panoramic, presenting the deadly details of daily life under apartheid, and specific, focusing on four cases drawn from the vast number undertaken by the TRC. (A closing credit says the commission had already dealt with 7,000 perpetrators and 22,000 victims.) The film brilliantly renders the drama as a modern Greek tragedy, complete with dramatic encounters between enemies, an audience that acts as a Greek chorus, and, in the more successful cases, catharsis and perhaps closure.
The first case is the one most familiar to Americans: the 1993 death of white Stanford student and activist Amy Biehl at the hands of a black mob. Biehl’s parents attended the amnesty hearing for the four men serving time for killing her, and surprise everyone by not only supporting their case but meeting with their relatives. Some of the film’s most evocative moments occur during this emotion-laden meeting, when the Biehls embrace, and even comfort, the mother of their daughter’s killer. The specter of historical forces causing decent people to surrender their morality is everpresent in this narrative: “If we had been living reasonably,” one of the perpetrators says, “we would not have killed her.”
In the second sequence, Eric Taylor, a white policeman, decides to confess his part in a notorious 1985 massacre of the “Cradock 4.” It would be easy to dismiss him as a one-dimensional thug, but the film resists such pigeonholing, giving him a forum in which he can talk about his conversion after reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and seeing the American movie Mississippi Burning. Again there is a powerful focus on the mothers whose children were killed, and forgiveness is not always offered. The mother of one of Taylor’s victims refuses to respond to his claim that “This has become heavy on my soul.” Desmond Tutu, a benign presence throughout the film, embodies the TRC’s nobility in striving for “restorative” rather than “retributive” justice, though the sheer gruesomeness of some of the killings makes absolution difficult at best.
Not all perpetrators were white. The third sequence features Robert McBride, a member of the armed wing of the African National Congress whose activities included blowing up a whites-only restaurant (killing 3 and injuring 69 others). Not all the white victims are as understanding as the Biehls. McBride is criticized as “arrogant” by a woman whose sister died in the blast, but his intelligence and rage resonate as he wonders why no one has apologized to him for years of oppression.
The final sequence wrenchingly explores another famous case. The “Guguleti 7” were seven black men who were trained and armed and then murdered as terrorists by secret police for a Naziesque training film. This was done in part for economic reasons, to show the higher-ups that the police responsible for the Guguleti area were doing their job and deserved more funding (they got it). Among these police was a black man, Mbelo, who, like his peers, was trained at Vlakplaas, one of South Africa’s secret centers for death squad training. The mothers are at their most anguished here, by turns attacking Mbelo, denouncing him for selling out “your own blood,” and embracing him, sometimes reluctantly. One of the commission’s members says of these killers, “You want to see that they are not monsters after all,” but Mbelo doesn’t offer much hope. In some of the film’s chilliest scenes, he describes a casually murderous mindset that transcends any notion of humanity. “We didn’t have feelings,” he says. After the murders, “It felt like a day’s work had been done.”