A Quill Pen

Red Dust

by Gillian Slovo

1 May 2006 book review
by Collie Collier
(subtitle quotes by William Shakespeare)


The protagonist, Sarah Barcant, is a native of rural South Africa, now living in New York and practicing law. To her dismay, her aging childhood mentor, Ben Hoffman, summons her back to help him present a case before the Truth Commission against Dirk Hendricks, a confessed torturer.

Sarah is not the only unwilling participant, however. The torture victim himself (Alex Mpondo) is reluctant to confront his torturer, since he's now an MP in the new government, and considered a hero of the revolution. However, he too is pressured to testify, since his best friend's father, James Sizela, is still desperately seeking closure for his son's disappearance and suspected murder at the hands of Hendricks' former boss, the brutal ex-police chief Pieter Muller.

"If truth holds true contents"

One of my primary motivations in reading this story was to find some perspective on how the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was working. Secondarily, I was interested in learning more about the nature of truth. I have answers now, but much like truth itself, they are relative: perplexing and incomplete.

In an excellent on-line article titled "Sorry! The politics of apology" by Marina Warner, I found something which resonated strongly with this search. It was this article, in fact, which first caused me to start searching for the book Red Dust. The article's author speaks, late in the article, of the innovative South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission, established to deal with what happened under apartheid. It was innovative in that it conflated confession with forgiveness -- all the perpetrators had to do was come in and admit to their political crimes, and they would not be charged.

Of course, any such violent, emotionally charged situation will have radically varying memories associated with it. That these abuses occurred years ago, to a wide variety of people of varying ages, skin colors, backgrounds, and genders, will further blur and confuse memory. Thus this policy naturally has both positive and negative results associated with it, and is creating a curious, amalgamated version of historic(al) "truth." There are, in fact, apparently four different kinds of truth, some of which I immediately understand, and some of which I'm still fascinatedly working on. To quote from the article:

"From the point of view of personal storytelling, the TRC in South Africa worked with a radical form of relativism in respect of historical narrative. As Anthea Jeffery points out in her book on the TRC, The Truth about the Truth Commission, the Commission actually invoked four different types of truth as basic principles, partly conceived by the formerly imprisoned activist, now judge, Albie Sachs.
  • 'Factual and objective truth' -- what actually took place. This is the equivalent of Freud's 'material truth.'

  • 'Social or dialogue truth', which, according to the document, was established through interaction, discussion and debate.

  • The devisers then added something we can recognise very strongly from today's world, 'narrative truth', which was victims' recitations, including 'perceptions, stories and myths': witnesses or participants talking of their own... perceptions... how they saw events, both subjectively and in accordance with the collective memory of the group. This corresponds to Freudian psychoanalytic confession. These truths were seen not in synthesis but in apposition.

  • Most interestingly of all, I think, in terms of what the work of repair or work of words can achieve, how the work of reconstituting the self through speech and storytelling can develop, was the fourth kind of truth, 'healing truth'. 'The kind... that places facts and what they mean within the context of human relationships.' This implies that 'healing truth' might even diverge from narrative truth, testimony and objective truth -- that these things might actually be in conflict or in opposition."

In analyzing what these different types of truth are, and trying to understand them and integrate them into my life-view, I found some difficulties. "Factual, objective truth" was fairly easy to grasp, of course; I mentally refer to this type of truth as "physical truth," or what actually happened regardless of whether it was witnessed. "Narrative truth" I can also understand, as the reality we create internally for ourselves: the personal stories we tell ourselves (which may bear little relation to 'factual truth') which help us embody who we personally believe we are.

The latter two were a bit more complex, however, and I'm not sure I've completely grasped them. For example, "social or dialogue truth" I see as an experience shared and discussed within a group, such that they eventually agree upon a common meaning, even if they do not all initially have the same memories. I believe this is the basis of, for example, ethnocentrism, or religious beliefs.

Finally there's "healing truth," and this is the one which is slipperiest for me. I am not sure, but I believe what is meant here is a truth which allows people to find a version of their past which they can bear -- a "truth" comfortable enough for them that they can better live their lives. I suspect this is the "truth" most likely to vary wildly from "factual truth," in that there must be occurrences in our lives which are simply too much for us to bear, and so we re-frame the story to be kinder to ourselves, and thus create for ourselves a healing new reality or truth.

"The truth I shall not know, but live in doubt"

Unfortunately the TRC chose to see rape as a non-political crime. With this decision, in one bold stroke the TRC chose to marginalize the experiences of all the women prisoners and victims of apartheid. Even the most cursory glance at the related statistics show the torture of women almost always started with rape and other forms of sexual brutality. By denying the political applicability of this form of torture, the TRC refused the women prisoners the possibility of emotional closure, and the ability to completely forgive their torturers.

Indeed, it is women who have the most to lose from participating in the TRC, as they are the least likely to be perpetrators of the horror of apartheid. Most of the women appearing before the Commission served as witnesses to disappearances and atrocities committed on their relatives. It is they who are most expected to acknowledge the litany of brutality, then forgive its (usually male) perpetrators. It is they who are supposed to graciously accept sometimes obviously insincere apologies from unrepentant murderers for their suffering, and yet still be satisfied only with surviving, and knowing where their loved ones are now buried.

The very existence of those apologies raises questions of its own. Why do these confessing criminals apologize? They are not required to do so -- all they must do is confess, and they will receive amnesty for their crimes. Is there some faint stirring of empathy in them, facing the people whose lives they've demolished, whose families they've forever shattered? Do they feel an apology, however insincere, grants them absolution somehow, or are they simply mocking the still-powerlessly-suffering victims and relatives of victims whom they are forced to face?

And what about the survivors of apartheid? They may wish for justice, but they certainly will not receive it from the TRC. Indeed, Slovo herself has written elsewhere of her rage while she and her sister attended the hearing of the man who assassinated their activist mother, Ruth First. It's all fine and good to discuss "the elusive nature of 'restorative justice'" or of truth and reconciliation without need for punishment, but is it truly feasible? Does re-writing history actually mold a new national character, and allow former victims to live peacefully side by side with their torturers?

Slovo is still deeply divided on this issue, as her writing clearly shows. Regarding the death of her mother, she does in fact believe she finally learned the truth: "not because [the] murderers told the truth -- I am convinced they lied throughout -- but because the process forced me to understand their mind-set and who they were... I do in the end believe that it is better to know the truth, no matter how painful. In that, I think the hearing did bring me some kind of peace."

It is this self-searching, I think, which animates the story in Red Dust. The protagonist, Sarah, appears to be an idealization of Slovo's search for closure -- mostly because she doesn't seem to be much related to the plot in any other way. She's not critical to the story at all. Instead, Sarah is smart, childless, independent, unattached, and emotionally distanced from her childhood home -- a former member of the small town, but one who cannot be hurt by, or dragged into, the messy realities of blood, unjustified cruelty, and murder. Just as we learn about the physical setting of the story through her re-acquainting herself with it, so does she embody an attempt to discover objective truth. It is more the slippery nature of truth, I feel, which causes her quest to fail, than any squeamishness on the part of the author.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sarah (like the author) does not enjoy her journey to the home of her memory. On the surface, of course, all appears calmly normal in the small town, but Sarah is chilled by her new understanding of the twisted undercurrents and tensions straining beneath the placid-seeming familiarity. The chill is bone-deep, in a way -- she refuses any true connection with the town, much as she does with her theoretical client, the charming and charismatic Alex.

Even Sarah's moment of physical intimacy with Alex is based on a lie. As the TRC uncovers literal as well as metaphorical skeletons, she remains untouched except in the most superficial of ways. Like a tourist, she meddles lightly in the lives of the people, but has no real stake in caring or true connection with them. In the end she shoulders deception as easily as the villains of the piece, and with what I would guess are the same motivations: the best of intentions.

"Truth tired with iteration"

Around Sara swirl the true actors of this absorbingly creepy story: torturers and victims painfully reunited, bound in a complex, disturbingly intimate mental contest. As much as Sarah, they too are ultimately liars, although for different reasons. Mueller deliberately lies out of a cowardice he labels courage, once again goading another man into doing his dirty work for him.

Dirk lies in a pointless burst of malice, trying to hurt Alex as payback for Dirk's perceived loss of status: from virtuous policeman defending civilization from the "degradation" of the "savage, uncivilized" black man -- to despicable torturer of powerless innocents. Even the TRC is widely considered deceptive: theoretically dedicated to truth but cynically renown for receiving and creating anything but.

Finally there's Alex, who doesn't so much actively lie as avoid the truth. Curiously he's the only one who seems to grow throughout the story; he is the only one who strives to surpass the past, to deny victim-hood in order to heal and go on.

The story swings freely on the axis of contrasting individuals in their search for the Truth. Old Ben Hoffman and his young protégé Sarah seem to have swapped views on both patience and activism; she wishes to conclude this unpleasantness swiftly and decisively, where he carefully examines this moment of apparent triumph.

He can perhaps be forgiven a bit of lassitude; he is dying, having metaphorically sacrificed himself to help birth this new nation. His protégé, however, seems to have inherited his impatience without his deep and abiding commitment to truth. Her loyalty is to a straightforward, simple, quickly-decided truth, where his dedication is to an understanding of the complexities of ambiguous loyalties and conflicting but heartfelt beliefs.

The relationship of Dirk and Alex, the former white torturer and black victim, is also turned upside-down, with the white man now prisoner and the black man the accuser. What remains intact is their sickeningly intimate, non-consensual bond, forged thirteen years ago through hours of dehumanizing abuse and degradation performed by Dirk upon Alex. In the end the torturer cannot escape his own actions -- they mold him still, and he cannot grow beyond those antiquated beliefs, even as his former victim leaves him behind to create a brave new nation.

Is that nothing more than what we'd like to believe would happen, though? Do the truly convinced torturers ever really face the true implications of their insane viciousness and brutality? What is their truth? -and will understanding and recognizing it damage us or free us?

Another contrast in comparison is embodied by Pieter Muller, the former police chief, and his intellectual opponent James Sizela. Formerly considered a white patriot, Muller is now viewed as the abusive, vicious enabler of a tyrannical government which has been thankfully thrown out of power. Sizela is the extremely law-abiding black school principal -- and the still-grieving father of the young man Muller refuses to admit he murdered thirteen years ago.

Both appear very similar in their unbendingly rigid adherence to their own personal convictions -- but when push comes to shove, it is the white man who cracks and tries to destroy someone else as he takes the easy way out. Equally, it is only the black man who has the courage to sternly and unflinchingly faces the consequences of his actions.

"Truth and beauty buried be"

If beauty is truth, then beauty and truth both are indeed found here only in the eye of the beholder. Despite all the conflicting participants in this tragedy searching desperately for elusive Truth, in the end no one really knows what truly occurred -- even the reader is not so privileged. The ugly reality of changing loyalties and complicity in silent self-deception complicates matters unpredictably, causing the story to flip-flop fascinatingly more than once, both in viewpoint and presentation. Tangled emotional struggles with guilt and betrayal also flavor how Truth is sought and perceived, and in the end only Alex manages to divorce himself from a need for punishment in order to seek his own personal redemption.

Slovo's story is a curious (albeit perhaps unsurprisingly) mix of cynicism and hope. Brutal murderers are somehow divested of complicity in the appalling crimes of apartheid simply by admitting what they did. By confessing their guilt they somehow theoretically purify the new nation of their evil actions, creating a hopeful new national memory... but is it also memory based on self-deception?

And the victims: their bitterness, anguish, and loss are based in rightful memories of pain at wrong-doing, but are those fervently held memories the actual occurrences, or are they permutations of it, enshrined in memory during the search for justice? Is Truth truly what they desire, or do they really need a retributive punishment on their victimizers? We are outsiders looking in -- we have no more understanding than they, and likely less. In the end we find truth has as many facets as there are participants in the story, and there is no public justice to be found in the story -- only the possible irony of torturers punished by imprisonment in their own ideological creations.

Reader Comments

12.18.05: Jonathan's thoughts

(and my replies)

I'm not terribly familiar with the events surrounding the modern history of South Africa. I remember being told that Nelson Mandella was a communist for a variety of reasons, and I remember being told that 'apartheid' meant a government where the franchise was divided along racial lines (though not with quite such large words!)

I do not know if there can really be any way for post-apartheid South Africa to go forward gently and with pride and avoid the pitfalls that the pre-apartheid government so dramatically toppled into. The goal is noble: to ease the pain of the past so that the entire nation can go forward as one people. I am not so cynical to think that it is impossible. But there are issues of justice and responsibility. I was raised such that to say 'Sorry' meant that you would never, even given the same set of circumstances, do that thing again, that you were genuine in your regret at having done it.

Would the former proponents of apartheid in South Africa, some of whom did indeed do some very despicable things, truly be sorry? Would they actually forgo ever doing what they did, ever again, all else being equal? Apologizing implies some sort of life lesson learned; have they learned anything from the victory of post-apartheid culture? The cynical part of me says 'no.' The less jaded part of me says 'maybe.' But how do you determine if someone is truly sorry for what they've done... and can you even tell such a thing?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a lofty goal and I think it's one that's aspiring to some of the highest human ideals. But speaking a little more pragmatically, there does need to be justice. Mercy untempered by Severity is just as harmful as the converse: neither really makes for Justice or balance.

As I said, I believe the TRC has some of the highest aspirations to human nature in mind, but we as a race, as the whole of humanity, might not be ready for this level of unequivocable forgiveness. We are yet too earthy to be able to embrace torturers and murderers as proper members of society though how do you integrate them into society, if you are unwilling or unable for whatever reason to divest them of life? If the TRC was instead some sort of 'Apartheid Crimes Judicial Court' which executed such people, how long would this new nation last before there was a vicious war fought along racial lines? Is that what they were considering instead of starting a Nuremburg-style court?

It's a difficult quandry, and one I don't envy the SA government for being in. Though I'm reasonably sure that there are people out there who would fall onto one or the other side of the question and state that there should be no compromise, it's not so clear-cut.