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Thursday, 05 March 2009 02:00

There Was this Goat

By  Michela Borzaga
In the early morning of 3 March 1986, seven young black activists were shot in Gugulethu (in the Western Cape) by the apartheid security forces. This incident will remain known in South African history as the Gugulethu Seven Killings. Following the testimonies at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this event was further explored in two important documentaries: The Gugulethu Seven by Lindy Wilson and A Long Night's Journey into Day by Frances Reid and Deborah Hofmann.

Antjie Krog, who was reporting as a journalist at the time of the TRC, remained particularly struck by the testimony of one of the mothers of the assassinated men. She found the testimony of Mrs Notrose Nobomvu Konile's (Zabonke John Konile's mother) peculiar for its apparent lack of coherence. A few years ago she decided to dig this testimony out of the archives again and to investigate it closer. In 2004, Nosisi Mpolweni and Kopano Ratele joined in the project; There Was this Goat is the result of their long, close, and intense collaboration.

This book opens up new questions concerning the nature of academic research itself. It sheds new light on trauma and testimony studies, revealing the imposition of meanings that such processes often and unavoidably entail. In this sense, There Was this Goat is not only a study but also a remarkable journey for the three academics who soon realize that to understand Mrs Konile's testimony adequately, they first must become aware of their own prejudices and positions. As the authors themselves stress in the book, little has been done in this direction and it is clear that more testimonies and narratives of the TRC need to be re-addressed and re-translated, taking into account the cultural differences in the country, which are more than the difference between white and black: "Indeed, when looking at an 'African self', an intra-Africanness strangeness needs to be part of it".

Translation is here understood as a philosophical and ethical project. Krog, Mpolweni and Ratele do not only re-translate the text of the testimony into English in a more accurate way: they meticulously and lucidly set themselves on trial in this process of interpretation making themselves vulnerable by entering Mrs Konile's world and culture, with the readiness to give up part of their own world and to take in something of the Other's. Krog puts it beautifully at a certain point after they had gone to see and interview Mrs Konile: "we were closer to Mrs Konile than any research had brought us. Her narration and her life filled us. We were somehow re-anchored differently – more of her, less of us".

There are numerous moving passages in There Was this Goat, one could quote endlessly from the text, but the chapter dealing with the work of the interpreters within the TRC is particularly precious. Here, the three authors decided to include passages from a workshop they attended at the University of the Western Cape in 2006. Thanks to this valuable chapter, the reader gains insight into the complexity of the process of interpretation, the difficulties the interpreters had to face every day – technically, theoretically, and emotionally within the Commission.

One of the most important points the book makes concerns the problems of poverty and deprivation in South Africa. In the end, the three academics realize that part of the sense of incoherence that they felt while listening to Mrs Konile's testimony was due to the different material conditions in which they were anchored. Only upon entering her kind of poverty do they realize that Mrs Konile's testimony within her own context, in Indwe, made perfect sense. One of the most moving passages is when Krog says: "I don't think I have the tools to hear poverty".  

There Was this Goat is a fascinating journey that will allow the reader to discover more of her humanity by confronting her own prejudices and positions towards difference. Finally, this book can be seen as an implicit study of what it means to read: to leave one's own anchored self and to enter a new, strange space, in which one feels "unmoored", as the authors state, but from which one eventually comes out "differently renewed".

There Was this Goat
by Antjie Krog, Nosisi Mpolweni and Kopano Ratele
Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2009.
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