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on 6 February 2004
Truth and Lies came about almost by chance. The photographer Jillian Edelstein had returned to South Africa for her sister’s wedding in October 1996, and while there became mesmorised by a weekly TV programme showing what was happening at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She returned to London only for long enough to generate an editorial assignment to document the work of the Commission.
Truth and Lies was never going to be an easy tale to tell. It becomes however the enduring witness to a nation undergoing catharsis. Edelstein is aware of her responsibility in the pictures she has produced. It would of course have been easy to direct her subjects, but in her choice of large format, black and white, and an almost universally eye level vantage point she has determinedly stood back from the notion of direction.
And her subjects have stepped forward to fill the void with meaning.
The result is an extraordinarily powerful archive containing within its pages: confusion, fear, real and less real contrition, bare faced defiance, extraordinary dignity, hope, hatred, genuine and deeply felt forgiveness, remorse; and above all absence. For this was no Nuremberg. Here, alongside the relatives of the victims, are those with the dirtiest hands: the enforcers, and in just a few cases the generals who ordered atrocities. In some instances after trying every avenue to avoid appearing, in others as a last sometimes forlorn attempt to avoid a long prison term, they stand before the world. And in a similar manner to George Rodger’s images from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, in their banal everyday appearance, they serve to remind us of the wafer thin line that divides civilisation from the ideology of the dark ages. But the true puppeteers of Apartheid, the political masters whose faces in the lead up to change we witnessed daily on television, are notable only in their failure to attend. Peace was apparently bought at the price of their impunity.
Gideon Johannes Nieuwoudt, to many the personification of the worst acts of Apartheid, is photographed with his armed witness protection officer Mike Barnardo. Nieuwoudt, was a sergeant in the security forces when he took part in the “interrogation” that killed Steve Biko, but by the time of his involvement in the killing and burning of the twenty one year old Siphiwo Mtimkulu had been promoted to Colonel. There is a casual confidence to Nieuwoudt: dressed in his cheap suit and ill fitting shirt as his cigarette burns in the hand the court heard he also used to beat his victims with a hose pipe. The other image in the book that I keep coming back to is that of Henie Smit, whose eight year old son was killed by a bomb blast in 1985. The bombers were caught and hanged for their crime and Mr Smit told the TRC that at first he hated all blacks for killing his son. But he gradually came to feel that his son died in the struggle for majority rule, and as a result was also a hero of that struggle. He became an outcast in his own community when he voiced this opinion after visiting the family of one of the executed bombers to comfort them in their grief. We aren’t told if Mr Smit bred doves before the death of his son, but he does now. In Edelstein’s portrait Mr Smit is just on the other side of focus while the dove he holds is pin sharp. This might perhaps have been the perfect metaphor on which to end the book, but for the fact that Edelstein lives in the real world; and understands what an immense task lies ahead for the post-Apartheid South Africa.
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on 14 August 2015
Well written.
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