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

Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope (3)

Gideon Strauss


October 29, 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.)

An interpreter is not a language tube. My job as an interpreter for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission involved listening to people tell stories—give testimony—in one language, and then simultaneously—or rather, within a very few seconds—recounting that story as faithfully as possible in another language for the listeners who do not understand the language of the original witness. But the words do not ever go through the ears and mouth of the interpreter entirely unchanged. And as an interpreter I was not left entirely unchanged by the words going through my ears and mouth.

As a then father of two young girls, the more difficult stories to interpret were those that involved children. So, for example, the testimony of Zainab Ryklief on the “Trojan Horse Incident:”

On October 15, 1985, soldiers hid in a delivery vehicle driving through the Cape Town neighborhood of Athlone and then fired on anti-apartheid protesters who were throwing stones. Three people died from gunshot wounds: Jonathan Claasen, age 21; Shaun Magmoed, age 15; and Michael Miranda, age 11. Video footage from the event caused an international outcry.

Recalling the incident before the Commission in 1997, Mrs. Ryklief testified that she feared that things would go wrong with the anti-apartheid protest. The children of the neighborhood were on their way to school when the shooting started. She called them into her house, but, in the confusion and panic, they wavered between hiding in her house and getting to their own.

“I panicked. I was also shot but was so concerned about my children and because Ms Abrahams was screaming. … I went out at the back door of the house. … I noticed my child was sitting in the chicken coop …

“My … child choked the chickens so that they would not make a noise because of the police walking up and down with their rifles and so that they would not notice him … Ms Abrahams was still screaming ....

“This … policeman kicked open the door. … I was convinced that he would kill all of us, because he came into the house with his rifle. One child was under the dressing table and the policeman grabbed him and then I screamed at my sister … I then went to the kitchen and saw blood all over the kitchen. My food on my stove, and all of the cups and saucers and glasses in the kitchen were broken with the shots that were fired. I was then taken away.”

One of the victims, Shaun Magmoed, was a friend of the family and sought shelter in their home after being shot. Mrs Ryklief’s own children were taken away for medical attention.

“When Shaun ran into the house, he threw himself on my bed. Ms Abrahams threw herself on the bed also and she had blood on her from the children. The children were wearing maroon jerseys so she did not see the blood. When he fell on my bed, he died and he died there on my bed.”

As I assisted interpreting this testimony I imagined what it would have been like to discover that gunshot wounds suffered by my children went unnoticed for some time because their blood was less obvious against the color of their sweaters.

—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.”