The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up in post-apartheid South Africa, enabled people who had been imprisoned for the crimes they had committed in apartheid times to secure an amnesty, provided they told the full truth about their activities to a court set up by the commission, presided over by judges and with perpetrators and victims represented by lawyers. This novel tells the story of a fictional case in a dusty little town called Smitsrivier.
Dirk Hendricks, a former policeman now imprisoned, had applied for amnesty in respect of his having severely tortured Alex Mpondo, now a member of Parliament. The powerful middle section of the novel is about the hearing of his case by the Commission. The tense confrontation between Hendricks and Mpondo in court is painful in the extreme. The burly Hendricks, who has been well-briefed by his lawyers and is in any case very familiar with court proceedings, who knows all about psychological weaknesses and is a shrewd actor to boot, is determined to conceal the full truth. Mpondo has for some years tried to bury the memories of what he has suffered, but now they surface and cripple him. Moreover, he is also crippled by something else (which I must not reveal in this review) which both he and Hendricks know but which Mpondo's constituents do not. There is also the undercurrent that the two men are bound to each other by a terrible kind of intimacy.
Closely interwoven with the Hendricks-Mpondo relationship is that between Pieter Muller, another ex-policeman, and James Sizela, a black headmaster, desperate to find the remains of his son Stephen whom Muller had killed. While Mpondo and Sizela are very different characters, Hendricks and Muller are, from a fictional point of view, perhaps a little too much alike; and the key confrontation between Muller and Sizela, though it is as tense as that between Hendricks and Mpondo and as powerfully written, struck me as being rather closer to melodrama than to drama. And although the game of bluff and double bluff that is played at the end of the book can be seen as an ironic commentary on the word “truth” in the title of the Commission, it also subtly, but I think unintentionally, shifts the novel from a profound exploration of the psychology of torturer and victim to an altogether slicker level of story-telling. But despite these reservations, I found this book so gripping that I stick with a five star rating.
This report prepared by Mihai Buxar
Norton, Jan 2002, 25.95, 340 pp.
In Smitsrivier, South Africa, anti apartheid activist Ben Hoffman knows he cannot handle this case before the Truth Commission alone as he is ailing and his energy low and ebbing. He asks his former student, New York City prosecutor Sarah Barcant to come home to help him with the amnesty hearing of former local police officer Dirk Hendricks. Ben represents an interested party, Alex Mpondo who was a torture victim of Dirk. Ben also feels this forum will enable the law to get at Dirk's former boss Pieta Muller, who the former believes killed the son of another client back in 1985.
Sarah returns home after fourteen years away as only Ben could get her to come back. As the hearing occurs, Sarah, her dying mentor, Alex, the Ben's other client, and the pleading former cops are facing relatively diverse truths. Though intended to provide closure so that the country can move forward, this particular Truth Commission Hearing will leave no one happy as these “realities” open up new nightmares.
As documented South African police brutally tortured and murdered their opposition in order to maintain apartheid, but now face complex justice. RED DUST provides a close look at the amnesty hearings as the country struggles with the ugliest part of its heritage while trying to forge a better future. The story line is superb due to the characters forced to look at their past actions and the subsequent effects on each one and their loved ones that occurred by their actions. Gillian Slovo provides a tremendous gripping human-interest legal thriller that is unique and deserves an award if justice is to be served.
This report prepared by Harriet Klausner