Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope (4)

Gideon Strauss


November 19, 2010
by Gideon Strauss

(In this series I reflect on my work as an interpreter for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, and try to tease out some of the biblical beginnings for a spirituality of political practice, looking in particular at a few Psalms.)

Not all the atrocities committed during the struggle over apartheid were committed by the South African government. Resistance movement soldiers frequently planted landmines on farms along the country’s borders. Johannes Petrus Roos, one of the affected farmers, gave testimony in 1996 about an incident that had taken place on August 17, 1986.

“My wife, my children and I went to church that Sunday evening. We were driving in two separate vehicles because earlier the afternoon I had to be at church and they had to join us later. … I was driving approximately 20 metres behind them, and I saw everything. I saw the flames underneath the car, and I saw the car being tossed into the air, off the road onto the left-hand side, into the bushes. Pieces of metal and dust were in the air, and I drove closer and jumped out, and I said God, why?

“I went closer, and I looked at my wife. She was sitting on her seat, and she was covered in dust, and she was severely injured. … I took my two children out, put [them] in my vehicle, and took them to the nearest house where Mr Pretorius was already preparing to come out. I briefly told him what had happened and asked his wife to look after my two children and asked him to come and help me so that we could get my son and my wife out of the car.

“He then went with me, and we managed to open the front door of the wreck, and I put my jacket down on the grass and put my wife on top of the jacket. Then we tried to free my child who was on the back seat, but we could not get him out, because the front seat had trapped his legs in-between the seat. I then asked my neighbour to please fetch his car and take my wife to the hospital … I got down on my knees and I said to my wife please don't give up hope, look to God, he will help you … We picked up my wife and put her on the back seat, and he took her away to the hospital…

“At daybreak my father and I went back to the scene of the explosion, because I knew that part of my wife from her calf down was in the wreck. We went to see if we could find this in the wreck so that we could bury one part of her. But unfortunately we couldn't find anything. What we did find was a part of my son's forehead. He had a hole on the left-hand side of his forehead. Part of his brains were on the seat, and I picked it up in a tissue and folded it and went and buried it in my house.

“Do you know how it feels, Mr. Chairperson, can you just imagine how it feels to have to find part of your eight-year-old's brain and have to go and bury it? Can you just imagine it? What it does to a person. How can you be human thereafter?”

How to be human amidst these stories? I remember flicking audio cassette tapes of the early albums of the band U2 into the little sound system of my 1974 Datsun coupe as I drove the four hours home from hearings in Johannesburg to my home in Bloemfontein, raging, raging because of the experiences of victims of all this violence.

—Gideon Strauss is editor of Capital Commentary and CEO of the Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”