Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull bears striking implications when read alongside J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. While both texts take place in the mid-nineties and are told through the lens of Afrikaners, they concern themselves with different aspects of the immediate aftermath of the post-apartheid South African state. Krog’s account is ostensibly a work of non-fiction, in which white journalists contending with the crimes of the previous regime, along with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s triumphs and shortcomings in attempting to heal the newfound nation. Conversely, Coetzee conveys the struggles of whites and blacks within South Africa to adapt to the changing political landscape through the lens of a morally questionable middle-aged professor forced to confront the conflict in an extremely personal manner – with debilitating consequences for everyone involved. Nevertheless, each work lends itself to necessary and compelling narratives surrounding the anxieties of The New South Africa.
It seems pertinent to situate these texts beside one another as being emblematic of the political and social situation in South Africa at the time. In this sense, Krog gives the TRC as a literal example of the ongoing public struggle to force the white minority to reckon with its violent past. Through her journalistic writing style, the reader finds himself as lost in the atrocities as the journalists themselves who must face the fact that they too (despite being liberal and decidedly anti-apartheid) benefited from this system of economic and racial disenfranchisement. Thus, she shows not only the gravity of what occurred under National Party governments, but also the sensitivity of Afrikaners to acknowledging their own complicity to help the nation move forward. For this reason Krog, illustrating how many whites came to feel as victims themselves, leaves her readers with the impression that the TRC, while well-intentioned and overall positive would not be able to solve South Africa’s long-term and deeply rooted racial divide.
Similarly Disgrace serves as an allegory of the nation with David Lurie being an example of a white male who must come to terms with his loss of status (that he may not have even realized he possessed) after the end of Apartheid. Once disgraced by his affair with a student, falling victim to an assault at the hands of three black youths, and remaining powerless to prevent his daughter, Lucy, from being raped by the same group of individuals; David becomes flabbergasted by his inability to convince the black and white communities along with his daughter to bring these boys to justice. Petrus, an influential member of the native African population set to take over much of Lucy’s land, continually tells David, “Yes, I know what happened. But now it is alright” (138). In this scene, Coetzee shows the ugly truth about South Africa in the wake of its desegregation – that in many instances, people will have to let the past be the past, no matter how ugly it might be. Therefore, as in the case of the TRC, David fails to ignite any willingness to right the wrongs brought upon Lucie; thus forcing them both to wallow in their pain and attempt to move on in silence.
These national narratives resonate with Seydina’s comment on Tuesday – that retribution and restoration may never be possible, with peace being the best possible outcome for South Africa. This leaves not only South Africans, but anyone who grapples with legacies and ongoing forms of marginalization, genocide, marginalization and bigotry, with a crucial question: at what point does it cease to be productive to reopen old wounds, and bear witness to difficult histories? Can a society truly move on when these issues constantly take a center stage in the national conversation, with little concrete action directed towards actually solving the problem? These are the questions that Krog and Coetzee seem to be tackling in Disgrace and Country of My Skull, and unfortunately they remain as pertinent today as they did almost twenty years prior.