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on 27 February 2002
As someone who spent sometime in South Africa in the last few years, I was interested to read some fiction about the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. This was a good start. The author describes the hearing from several points of view which gives an insight into the different expectations people have.
The descriptions of an African town were superb and it brought me back immediately to similar places that I visited.
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on 28 February 2005
Sarah Barcant is a successful young lawyer in New York who grew up in Smitrivier, South Africa. One day she gets a call from Ben Hoffman, a retired lawyer who used to be Sarah's professional mentor, asking her to come back to Smitrivier to take up a case. And so after fourteen years, Sarah returns to the town where she grew up to do Ben a favour because she thinks she owes him so much. A policeman, Pieter Muller, is suspected of having killed James Sizela's son Steve during the Apartheid. Muller's culpability has been a belief in Smitrivier for thirteen years, ever since Steve was arrested on Pieter Muller's orders and then disappeared. So now the Truth Commission is James's last chance to find his son's body and have him properly buried. The timing appears to be perfect since the Truth Commission is about to deal with the jailed policeman Dirk Hendricks who applied for amnesty for the torture of Alex Mpondo, now an MP in the South African government. The plan is to use Alex Mpondo's presence at the hearing to threaten Hendricks that unless he reveals Pieter Muller's complicity in the murder of Steve Sizela, he may not get his amnesty. But the search for the truth is going to be far more arduous than Sarah imagined - perhaps even an impossible task.
Mrs Slovo casts a merciless look at contemporary South Africa where heroism and perfidy are no longer distinct, where new truths are as painful as old lies, where torturers, once heroes, are now victims. An excellent novel which shows the absurd relationship between aggressors and victims and the power between the torturers and the tortured.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 March 2014
Gillian Slovo is novelist whose books never fail to impress and in this one she writes about the aftermath of political changes that probably reached a wider, global audience than any other in the late 20th century. The fact that these occurred in the country of Slovo’s birth and that her parents were so intimately involved in the events leading up to the focus of this book only added to my sense of anticipation. The author certainly does not disappoint.

Sarah Barcantis is a successful New York prosecutor who, out of the blue, receives a call from her close friend and mentor, Ben Hoffman, asking her to drop everything and return to the town of Smitsrivier. Hoffman, a liberal, is dying and needs Sarah’s help to locate the body of Stephen Sizela, son of the town's headmaster. Stephen has been killed by a police officer, Pieter Muller, and this segment of the story runs alongside another, that involves a second ex-policemen and a victim who has sought to put the past behind him.

Alex Mpondo, one of Stephen’s closest friends and now an ANC MP, is to be the key witness in a hearing brought under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the ex-policemen, Dirk Hendricks, who is seeking an amnesty for crimes that include the torture of Mpondo. However, Mpondo’s way of moving on has been to forget all that had happened to him under the previous regime, ‘He had put Steve out of his mind, buried him as surely as Steve himself had been buried’.

Sarah and Mpondo are at odds, he trying to keep his past memories hidden whilst she is seeking to bring them to the surface. She is also surprised at the apparent closeness between the torturer and the tortured, and realises that she will have to reveal the basis of this if she is to have any chance of finding out about Steve’s fate.

Hendricks has significant advantages, above all, his time in the police force has taught him to recognise and attack a person’s psychological weakness. The court scenes are very gripping and one can feel Mpondo’s agony as the case proceeds. The chapters are short and, along with the author’s direct style, help to keep the reader gripped.

It becomes clear that ‘truth’ and ‘reconciliation’ are both relative terms, and that the pathway to the former is a very painful one. In so many ways, the novel is a contemporary thriller with the innermost secrets of complicity and betrayal being wrenched out into the open. Attitudes to the sparring parties shift and, whilst Mpondo is the most impressive character, Slovo has created a group of very rounded figures. It is to her credit that both the ex-policemen are more than hate-figures. However, perhaps they might have been a little more differentiated?

This is an impressive book that also addresses Sarah’s perspective on a homeland that she has long left and is now having to confront again. Since Slovo now lives in London this part of the novel might have been the most personal to write. This is an excellently plotted book and the repeated calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Northern Ireland make it as relevant today as it was when first published in 2000.
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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has come to Smitrivier,a small dusty South African town, to hear an appeal for amnesty by Dirk Hendricks,an apartheid era policeman now in jail, for the torture, in police custody of Alex Mpondo, now an MP. Lawyers for James Sizela are hoping to pressure Hendricks to inform on Pieter Muller, who as Hendrick's police colleague is believed to have tortured and murdered Sizela's son Steve at the same time.

The novel brings alive the atmosphere of this sleepy isolated place set in semi desert, always dominated until now by the white community, where blacks have lived separately, and now a white man is in effect on trial for his freedom, before an audience comprising mainly black people.An explosive change at the heart of every South African town. We see Hendrick's humble fauning demeanor masking the cruel arrogance which will return when the opportunity arises. The strange universal intimacy between torturer and victim, and in South Africa, exploiter and victim is also discussed.

The novel shows the weaknesses of the Commission, played like a game by both sides, and more generally the difficulty of the healing process in South Africa, particularly in the absence of true reparation,and the continuing racism beneath assertions to the contrary.

The story ends dramatically, but I won't give away the plot.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 3 November 2011
I enjoyed this very much. I have not read many novels about modern South Africa, but I have read Coetzee's 'Disgrace', and this inhabits the same territory, the moral ambiguity between races, the eating of humble pie by whites and the reaching out for what constitutes justice or acceptable compromises in the new world.

This is not as subtle as Coetzee's book, but has more directness. The courtroom scenes have cinematic quality, for example Alex Mbondo in court, thinking about the smell of his torturer's aftershave, 'crushed pine mixed with lard which soured on his slippery skin when he began to sweat'. The physicality of the white farmers, and the careful delineation of their code, and the agonizing restraint of the black families seeking what will have to pass for justice comes through with brutal candour.
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on 28 October 2008
Sarah receives a phonecall in New York from her mentor Ben, a call that will bring her back the dorpie in South Africa that she left. The Truth Commission has arrived in town and the school Headmaster would like to use it to find out what happened to his son, to finally have a body to bury.
The New South Africa still trying to come to terms with its past, the victims and the perpetrators are caught up by a connection that none can break. This is a good book to try and understand what is happening even now in RSA, noone was unaffected by the past.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 February 2006
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 deals with one such 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.
Lastly, a few words about Sarah Barcant, Mpondo’s lawyer. She had been born in Smitsrivier and had been trained there as a lawyer; but fourteen years ago, during the apartheid period, she had left for New York. One of the many excellent qualities of the book is her awareness of how much has changed in South Africa during her absence - and how much has not: in particular the eternal landscape of South Africa, its light and its scents, which are wonderfully conveyed. At the end the question is posed whether she had been a New York lawyer for so long that she never really understands what (in the author’s view, I think) the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, and what it was not and could not be.
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 deals with one such 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.
Lastly, a few words about Sarah Barcant, Mpondo’s lawyer. She had been born in Smitsrivier and had been trained there as a lawyer; but fourteen years ago, during the apartheid period, she had left for New York. One of the many excellent qualities of the book is her awareness of how much has changed in South Africa during her absence - and how much has not: in particular the eternal landscape of South Africa, its light and its scents, which are wonderfully conveyed. At the end the question is posed whether she had been a New York lawyer for so long that she never really understands what (in the author’s view, I think) the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, and what it was not and could not be.
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on 31 July 2015
well written much enjoyed by our book club
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 February 2006
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 deals with one such 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.

Lastly, a few words about Sarah Barcant, Mpondo’s lawyer. She had been born in Smitsrivier and had been trained there as a lawyer; but fourteen years ago, during the apartheid period, she had left for New York. One of the many excellent qualities of the book is her awareness of how much has changed in South Africa during her absence - and how much has not: in particular the eternal landscape of South Africa, its light and its scents, which are wonderfully conveyed. At the end the question is posed whether she had been a New York lawyer for so long that she never really understands what (in the author’s view, I think) the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, and what it was not and could not be.
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