The power of telling stories

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is developing into quite an industry. I’m trying to track down the books it has spawned — so far I have found five and I know of at least another two.

One, Country of My Skull, has already been made into a film featuring the delectable Juliette Binoche as Antjie Krog, the poet who wrote it.

On top of those the TRC itself recently produced two more volumes to supplement the five-volume ”final report” that was released amid some fanfare five years ago. Volumes six and seven are described as ”codicils”, seemingly to justify their late arrival.

Volume seven is an extraordinary memorial to the South African conflict, consisting of more than 19 000 names of victims of human rights abuses with a short summary of what happened to them. All summaries have more or less the same number of words, notes the commission, ”to ensure that no one person was perceived to be more important than another”.

Volume six includes the outcome of amnesty applications that missed the boat where the initial ”final report” was concerned. Opening the hefty, 786-page volume at random, I found myself once again marvelling — as I had five years ago — at the insight given into that peculiar mix of the First and Third worlds that is the essence of South Africa.

The section that caught my eye described how ”an informal youth congress” held a meeting in Venda — in the north of the country, where superstitions are particularly strong — to discuss ”the relationship between witchcraft and political repression”. The meeting concluded ”that witches should be killed”.

Armed with petrol and tyres a large group promptly went to the home of Emily Makulana. ”She was pulled out of her home and assaulted with a sjambok and petrol was poured over her. She was then burnt to death. Amnesty was granted.”

A quick flick through volume seven confirms that three youths were granted amnesty for Makulana’s death. Which is a pity in a way — a pity not so much that they were allowed amnesty (although one does have doubts on that as well), but that the issue of amnesty should have been mixed up with the story at all.

The granting of amnesty may have some sort of justification in terms of public policy, of political necessity, but somehow it interferes with the story-telling function of the commission, which is its power.

It offers a finding that imposes a judgement on a story where judgement is not required — where it in fact it only serves to obscure. It is as if at the conclusion of Hamlet, Fortinbras had held court in the judicial sense and attempted to impose findings of guilt, or innocence.

The fault, of course, does not lie wth the TRC — the amnesty requirement was imposed on it by its terms of reference, which required a determination as to individual culpability. But, even though judges were appointed to help with the task, the TRC was clearly uncomfortable with it — hence the statement in the introduction to the first volume that truth cannot be seen as a singularity.

Echoing the philosopher Karl Jaspers’s assertion that there are four different kinds of guilt — criminal, political, moral and metaphysical — the commissioners declared there were four variations of ”truth”: factual, or forensic truth; personal and narrative truth; social truth and healing; and restorative truth.

The point the TRC struggles to make is perhaps to be found in the observation of the Irish writer Standish O’Grady, who said that ”the legends represent the imagination of the country; they are that kind of history which a nation desires to possess. They represent the ambitions and ideals of the people and, in this respect, have a value far beyond the tale of actual events and duly recorded deeds, which are no more history than a skeleton is a man.”

An understanding of that, of the value and power of the story-telling function, helps explain, for example, why people queued through the night this week in the United Kingdom in the hopes of hearing Tony Blair testify before the Hutton inquiry.

It also points to the value that could be had from a truth commission inquiring into the war in Iraq; an inquiry not to establish guilt or innocence, but simply to hear the stories as they are understood by the two sides to the conflict. — Guardian Unlimited Â

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