…down De Villiers Graaff motorway and talking about other things when my friend says, “Can you guess what this building is?”
It is my first day in the city. The building’s looming presence tells me what I didn’t know I knew. “They tortured people here?”
REPORT FOR FEBRUARY 1987
Mrs R was referred to us by the attorney acting on her behalf. Her husband was taken from their house in Old Crossroads by the ‘witdoekes’ in June last year and they allegedly handed him over to a particular warrant officer and held him at Gugulethu Police Station. This police station (and all the others in the area) has no record of him ever being held there. The security police have no trace of him in detention. He has disappeared. It is difficult to know what to say to a wife in this position.(1)
An alien visitor to our media environment this week might notice two things.
One: torturers and their assistants expressing how profoundly they forgive themselves. They love television, and they love newspapers, and their memories of what they did in the nineteen-eighties, what crimes they participated in or supported, are foggy. In fact, often, there is nothing to forgive. Everyone was on the side of the angels.
A second phenomenon, related to the first: torturers expressing their disappointment in the tortured. This disappointment quickly becomes anger. What is the matter with these blacks? The tortured act troubled, it is observed. They consistently fail to live up to the hopes the torturers have for them. Equality has not come, corruption is rampant, and the leadership is disgraceful. An alien visitor might note: the wounded are everywhere singled out for blame, the wounders almost never.
The one forgets to remember itself to its self. It keeps and erases the archive of this injustice that it is, of this violence that it does. The one makes itself violence, it violates and does violence to itself. It becomes what it is, the very violence that it does to itself. (2)
The torturer cannot forgive the tortured for having been tortured. And certainly not for having taken on some of the torturer’s characteristics.
It is good to remember that for a brief moment (before reconciliation interrupted the work of mourning) the victims had a say:
After learning for the first time how her husband had died, she was asked if she could forgive the man who did it. Speaking slowly, in one of the native languages, her message came back through the interpreters: “No government can forgive.” Pause. “No commission can forgive.” Pause. “Only I can forgive.” Pause. “And I am not ready to forgive.” (3)
The second chapter of the fifth volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report is entitled “Victims of Gross Violations of Human Rights.” It contains a long list of names in alphabetical order. The document says there will be more names to come. But this, already, is a rich and representative sample. Take any section, and it could have come from a Johannesburg phone book:
MATIWANA, Nontombi Beauty
MATIWANA, Siphiwe Headman
MATIWANE, David Ndumiso
MATIWANE, Lungisa Welcome
The names run into hundreds. Folded into the neat letters of each name is an invisible horror. We know a little more about one of these names, Lawrence Matjee, because David Goldblatt took a photograph of him in 1985. No one in the history of photography ever captioned photographs more scrupulously than did Goldblatt:
Fifteen Year Old Lawrence Matjee After His Assault And Detention By The Security Police, Khotso House, De Villiers Street, Johannesburg, 25 October 1985
“Yes, they tortured people here,” my friend says. She points out the building. It has a façade of blue tile. This is John Vorster Square, headquarters of the security police. In the old days people went into this building and came out lessened, if they came out at all. It was an evil place.
The victim, by continuing to suffer, irritates the oppressor, who would rather be already past it.
We drive on in silence.
Will there someday be another Truth and Reconciliation Commission? One that features names like Faisal bin Ali Gaber, Nabila Rehman, and Zubair Rehman? Maybe. But should such a day ever come, if history’s any guide, we won’t be ready to forgive those people for what we did to them.
(1) Catherine Taylor, “Apart,” 2012.
(2) Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever,” 1996.
(3) ed. Robert Rotberg and Dennis Thompson, “Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions,” 2000.