What do you do when someone says something to you that you don’t understand?
It happens all the time. The someone may be someone we know or a stranger. The event might be inconsequential or it might be important. It is always unsettling. The usual, easy choice is to let it go by, hoping that the miscommunication will either become clear or fade away in time. The safe choice is to dismiss the other as incomprehensible, or to interpret the misunderstanding away.
The difficult and risky choice is to walk into the confusion and ambiguity of not knowing quite where we stand with this person who is speaking to us. There was this Goat: Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile is the story of such an adventure.
Notrose Nobomvu Konile testified before the TRC in 1996 as one of the mothers of the Gugulethu Seven, seven young men who had died together ten tears earlier. Shot and killed by apartheid police, their bodies were later dragged away by ropes for the benefit of the evening television news.
For Antjie Krog, who covered that hearing as a journalist and for whom questions of truth and reconciliation remain open and pressing, this particular testimony and the problem of representing it stayed with her. In 2004, now at the University of the Western Cape, she invited two colleagues – Nosisi Mpolweni from the Xhosa department and Kopano Ratele from psychology and women and gender studies – to help her come to terms with Mrs Konile’s testimony.
Unlike the others who testified at that hearing, Mrs Konile is somehow all wrong: her words are indistinct in several places, her narrative is fractured, some elements seem purely fantastical. For the mother of a fallen hero, she appears crassly concerned with herself and the getting of a house. And then there’s this goat.
What are we to make of this? More specifically, what are we black and white South Africans to make of this presence, on the national sacramental stage of the TRC, of an incoherent poor rural black mother? It is a sensitive issue. We could easily turn away, dismiss her out of hand, but no one here will do that. It’s just not good enough. Perhaps we could go a little further and accept her impenetrability in order to explain it, folding it in with what we already know and believe.
Krog and Kopane imagine two “possible conversations” about Mrs Konile and her testimony, one between two white friends, the other between two blacks. In these significantly different conversations, the usual painful issues are raised and explored – thoughtfully and sincerely, with passion and compassion – but nothing finally happens.
Another response is to go even further and wonder if maybe the problem lies not with the one who speaks but with those who have failed to hear. It is this proposition that leads Krog, Mpolweni and Ratele back to Mrs Konile’s testimony, to listen again.
Their adventure begins with all the elements of an academic thriller: the mysterious woman, the three detectives with their different backgrounds and specialities, some clues to be followed, and the occasional red herring to lead them astray.
Their first task is one encountered by most TRC researchers – to retrieve audio and video cassettes from the tangled web of the SABC and the National Archives. Clearing that hurdle, Mpolweni re-transcribes the original Xhosa and, with Ratele, translates it again into English. Wonderfully, all three versions – including the Commission’s official record (and also their later interview with Mrs Konile and its translation) – are presented in the book, allowing readers to see what is really entailed in the complex work of translation and interpretation, and to follow along as best we can.
They discover that much of the incomprehension was created from both ordinary errors and omissions on the part of interpreters and transcribers and the elision of cultural references that didn’t survive the passage of translation. With every linguistic discovery, fresh light begins to dawn on many aspects of Mrs Konile’s story. Is she beginning to make more sense? No, let’s be clear: it is we, through these detectives, who begin to understand her better.
New interpretations and explorations in turn raise broader issues of cross-cultural communication, with each author contributing from her or his own background and discipline. Among the many fine pieces here on the social contingency of language, on ways of knowing and textual analyses, Ratele’s crackling two-page aside on the cultural confusion that black students must face in white schools is worth the price of admission all by itself. A complex mosaic gradually comes into focus, with an editorial adroitness that keeps the pages almost turning by themselves.
Provocative as all of this indeed is, it is still only an elaboration of the strategy of understanding through objective interpretation and truth-seeking. It’s what the friends in the “imagined conversations” do.
And then, the detective story somehow transforms into a quest – a hero’s journey for three – toward that other mystical grail of the TRC: reconciliation. The change happens as it becomes clear that they must go to Mrs Konile, to her home in the Eastern Cape, to speak with her face to face, in her own setting.
Early in the book, Ratele has referred to the notion of reconciliation as an ongoing cycle of care for ourselves and others that begins with a new expression of identity (as in Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech) and performing “acts of trust” with each other: “learning to trust and to be”. When this trust and space is – or appears to be – betrayed, the recognition that reconciliation is a cyclical rather than a linear process allows us to dust ourselves off and begin again without despair, maybe just a bit further along than when we started.
As the story unfolds and their working relationship becomes stronger, we can sense a kind of subtle alchemy taking place between the three authors. Eventually, it is this earned base of mutual trust and a shared dedication to Mrs Konile and her testimony that sends them out of the safety of academic equality and impartiality into the unruly and unfamiliar conditions of Indle in the Eastern Cape.
In an extraordinary climax, they discover both “truth”, in finally restoring the meanings of Mrs Konile’s testimony and recognising her dignity and fortitude, and a “reconciliation” of themselves. It is as if meeting her forces (or allows) them also to finally meet each other, stripping them of their academic robes and racially defined identities. Something happens. For an evening, “Suddenly we were out of our skins. The world was lovely.”
I don’t believe that you get to such moments unless you’re willing to expose yourself. And there is no guarantee you’ll get there at all. Such moments are fleeting. Our robes and skins are soon back in place, and that’s just as it is (although hopefully we’re less hooked into them). And what we do find together can be painfully and shockingly put in question, even through something as simple as a missed sms.
But if we are to find each other, this is what is called for. To notice when someone says something we don’t understand. To do the work that is called for in order to understand, and to follow its call as far as it takes, farther than we dared to imagine we could. Is truth and reconciliation anything other than this? Is the world not suddenly lovely?