They came in their droves, each one in turn lighting their own tiny candle. There was the skinny young man in the brown leather jacket and cloth cap, the curvy woman in her silver-patina skirt and white blouse, the petite bald man with his severe black suit and tailored shirt, the young woman with the gold earrings matching her gold heels and her braids piled high on her head. Each one had lost someone in the Rwandan "Hundred Nights" Genocide of 1994 and they were at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Thursday night to pay their respects to their dead - and to watch a film on the treacherous themes of forgiveness and reconciliation in atrocity-fractured societies.
The event was hosted by Constitution Hill - the former prison at various times of resistants like Nelson Mandela, Helen Joseph, and Mohandas Gandhi, now turned into the site of the Constitutional Court and the Section 9 institutions which support the Constitution - plus the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, the South African History Archives, and the High Commission of Rwanda. The film screening commemorated the 22nd anniversary of the initiation of the murderous Hundred Nights by Agathe Habyarimana's Akazu inner circle of Hutu elite, the Hutu extremist Zero Network and their Interahamwe and Impuzamugambe genocidaires, and the 20th anniversary of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing into the atrocities of the apartheid era, on 15 April 1996.
I had covered the TRC when it sat in Durban, especially the amnesty hearing of former Vlakplaas death-squad commander Dirk Coetzee, and had covered the 10th anniversary of the Hundred Nights in Kigali and Butare in 2004, so I had been invited to attend. We had an overflowing venue with perhaps 200 people, including many Rwandan Genocide and some Jewish Holocaust survivors, in the audience.
Before the memorial candles were lit, Rwanda High Commissioner Vincent Karenga (seated at right above) warned about the attempt by Rwandan genocidaires - some of them sheltered by countries that had given them asylum - to reach out to "genocidal forces" abroad in the world, seeking justification for their crimes, stating that the slogan "Never Again!" would be irrelevant if education on the causes of the genocidal impulse were not vigorously pursued. This was followed by a brief set of filmed interviews with Genocide survivors (at least two of whom I later spotted in the audience) and their stories of what happened to their families defied imagination: the one woman spoke of her mother being turned over to the Interahamwe by Catholic nuns who had promised to shelter her; the genocidaires came and cut her legs off, then finding her still alive the next day, cut off her breasts, then the following day, returning to find her dying, executed her.
The documentary film itself, A Snake Gives Birth to A Snake, takes its name from the chilling response of an IFP member when asked by the TRC why he had hacked a nine-month-old girl to death with a panga during the 1992 Boipatong Massacre in which 45 people were slaughtered. It follows an ethnically diverse South African acting troupe as they recreate the roles of the most crucial interlocutors of the TRC process, that of the translators themselves, around twelve of whom are gathered together by director Michael Lessac.
With iconic South African musician Hugh Masekela devising songs based directly on TRC testimony ("They cut off my husbands hands..." etc), the play not only recreated the clash of competing truths at the TRC, but as the doccie shows, pitted the actors' own sense of their place in our shattered history against each others, as they increasingly come under the strain of the burden of our political history while touring the play in Rwanda, then Northern Ireland, then ex-Yugoslavia, with veteran journalist Max du Preez documenting the process.
After each performance, the troupe gathered together audience members from all of the competing sides in the host country and held a round-table discussion on the themes raised in the play - with an especial focus on the meaning of forgiveness and whether it is desirable or possible. It was a rougher journey than either actors or film-makers had expected: in Rwanda, the point was made by one audience member that among young Rwandan school kids, the parents of half of them are dead, and the others are in jail for genocide; in Northern Ireland, even the Catholic and Protestant dead are buried separately and one Irish National Liberation Army veteran stated that if Ireland had a TRC it would benefit the victims' families not at all because he felt no guilt for the killings he had committed; while in ex-Yugoslavia, the troupe continually ran into problems of trying to bridge the ethnic divide as it was almost impossible to secure mixed audiences, or to even screen Albanian and Serbian translations of the play alongside each other.
At one point du Preez asked a circle of young Rwandans for advice on how to deal with the fact that with his pale skin and Afrikaans surname, he will always be presumed to be an apartheid perpetrator (in fact he was convicted of "terrorism" for his journalism), and the one young Tutsi girl responded that there were Hutus in her class and she "loved them dearly" because they allowed her to express herself from time to time in bitter outbursts against the Hutus for having initiated the Genocide; so, she said, the solution was not to run away and hide your guilt, but to go and live among your former victims and show them your human face so that one day your humanity and contrition will be accepted by them.
The film gave me serious cause for thought on my own career as a journalist: even with 26 years behind me, much of them spent working in poor black areas, I felt that I was still only part-way down a long journey of reconciliation, and the current debate on decolonisation and the entrenched nature of cultural and structural racism underscores that many wounds are unhealed. After the screening, I spoke informally to UDM leader Bantu Holomisa: "Looking back at that time [Boipatong], I can't believe we made it," he said to me; "Sadly we still have much unfinished business," I replied; "Yes we do," he responded.