Reconciling South Africa’s Past and Future
As South Africa nears its finest moment on the global stage, a look back to its historic attempt to heal its past scars.
South Africa is counting down to what may be its finest moment ever on the global stage, as host to the 2010 World Cup. It’s been a long time coming for this beleaguered nation, which has spent the past fifteen years climbing out of its dark history of racial oppression.
For over forty years, South Africa was governed by the apartheid system, the most notorious form of institutionalized racial domination since Nazi Germany. Within this system, Blacks were prohibited from holding key jobs or even voting in national elections; in fact they were denied the right to South African citizenship. Such injustice sparked decades of brutal enforcement of these laws, as well as violent resistance, leading to casualties on both sides.
When apartheid finally collapsed, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed. As it investigated the crimes of apartheid, the Commission brought together victims and perpetrators to relive South Africa’s brutal history in order to pave the way for a peaceful future. In return, the perpetrators might be granted amnesty, while the victims may find a sense of justice in the public acknowledgement of their suffering. It’s worth noting that of the 7,000 applicants who requested amnesty through the TRC, 80% were black.
The TRC model was admired and imitated by countries around the world, from the Ivory Coast to Canada. But just how successful were the hearings? The Oscar-nominated documentary Long Night’s Journey Into Day offers an intimate glimpse into the TRC, following four representative cases that each give a different perspective on the effectiveness of the process. Geoff Andrew of Time Out raves about the film:
The testimonies of perpetrators and relatives of the dead – both to the commission and to camera – bear witness to the social and emotional fissures wrought by apartheid, but it’s the evidence of the healing process at work, with all its painful, grievous and unpredictable effects, which provides the real fascination of the film.
While similarly impressed with the film, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle feels more doubtful about the historical healing process being attempted:
The film, perhaps intentionally, leaves one with mixed feelings about the TRC, which often seems like an encounter group that’s not working, that can’t work.
Surprisingly, in almost every case the murderers don’t look as penitent as one might expect. They are not sobbing or begging for forgiveness. All of them… look twisted in some way, intent on justifying themselves, and as though they’re merely going through the motions of apologizing.
This hardly takes away from the film. It adds a layer of complexity. One wonders: Are these people killers because they were weird to begin with — or is their odd detachment the result of having to live with their crimes?
Dennis Lim of the Village Voice maintains that both the film and its subject have an undeniable transformative power:
Maintaining a respectful distance (in every sense), Reid and Hoffmann’s elegantly constructed documentary argues that the TRC, an unwieldy experiment in “restorative justice,” is not only successful on its own terms, but desperately necessary—a conclusion that may surprise, not least because this model of therapeutic confrontation has been routinely cheapened by touchy-healy American talk shows over the years. Spare, direct, and devastatingly effective, the film puts fuzzy, big-word concepts like absolution and redemption into an agonizingly vivid context. When, at the end of the film, a distraught mother spontaneously forgives her son’s killer, it’s a heartbreaking, heartening moment that you count yourself fortunate to have witnessed. In more ways than can be said of most films, Long Night’s Journey Into Day is essential viewing.
What’s your take on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Watch Long Night’s Journey Into Day and decide for yourself.