Africa dreaming

Country of My Skull

Antjie Krog <em>Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £16.99</em>

The Burden of Memory, t

South Africa and Nigeria are, actually or potentially, the twin giants of the African continent, even if their appallingly bloody recent histories threw up seemingly impassable barriers against a more hopeful future. South Africa seems to have come through those barriers, in a transformation that is routinely, and not foolishly, called miraculous - though it would indeed be foolish to understate its fragility or ambiguity. Nigeria, still under military rule after several failed or deliberately aborted transitions to democracy, has its future hanging in the balance.

A key element, perhaps the most truly magical one, in South Africa's "miracle" has been the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the most remarkable moral figures of our times, it was charged by the new government with compiling the fullest possible picture of past human rights abuses; to establish the truth of that terrible recent past, and through doing so prevent its perpetuation. Truth and reconciliation were seen as inseparably linked; neither was possible without the other.

Country of My Skull is an observer's account of the TRC's hearings and the events around them by a South African radio reporter and important Afrikaans poet. Simultaneously, Wole Soyinka - Nigeria's (and perhaps Africa's) greatest writer, but also its most famous political dissident - has pondered the wider meanings of the TRC and asks what lessons it may carry for his own country and indeed for the whole continent. Krog's and Soyinka's books, composed thousands of miles apart though equally impassioned, are thus yoked together with surprising intimacy.

Krog's account is compelling, well written and moving. But it is open to some sharp criticisms - and they've not been lacking in responses to the book within South Africa. In placing herself, her reactions and mood swings so much at the centre of the story as she follows the appalling testimony of the victims, is Krog not displaying a distasteful narcissism? Doesn't her "postmodern" scepticism about the notion of historical truth, interspersing her documentary account with fictionalised autobiographical passages, involve a kind of intellectual frivolity when set against the weight of pain the commission documents? And her confrontations with her own prejudices, including the admission that she cannot "read" the emotions and body language of her fellow black citizens as easily as the whites, might be thought either admirably honest or disconcertingly self-indulgent.

Krog's book should ideally be read alongside the TRC report itself (available in its entirety online at http://www.truth.org.za). The report, not just a dry summation, allows victims, survivors and perpetrators to speak for themselves. It includes the commissioners' own reflections on what makes people become oppressors, or on the links between masculinity and violence.

Soyinka's latest non-fiction book is less impressive, and seemingly less carefully crafted, than its immediate predecessor on the Nigerian crisis, The Open Sore of a Continent (1996). Indeed its two halves - the first more directly political, musing on the ideas of reconciliation, reparations, forgiveness, truth and memory in the aftermath of tyranny; the second a more literary reflection on the legacy of the "negritude" poets - are only loosely articulated, with the South African example the connecting thread. The text veers between acute insights and portentous generalisations.

Soyinka arouses passions, especially among his fellow Nigerians, as strong as those he expresses himself. The pro-government Nigerian press has recently been filled with unpleasant and, if even a quarter true, damaging stories about Soyinka's behaviour. That's only to be expected, and could easily be dismissed were it not that some of the same accusations are repeated by more independent-minded critics, and are circulating widely among the global Nigerian Internet community.

Soyinka brings to his political writings the same taste for polemic and satire that make his plays so compelling. He is a forceful, scathingly funny critic of his literary and political opponents; but he is not a discriminating or magnanimous one. He may not be the "tribalist" that some enemies have called him but he can refer, gratuitously, to people's ethnic origins, and his justified pride in the cultural achievements of his own Yoruba tradition sometimes shades towards chauvinism. And he couldn't be called a consistent political thinker. In some places he warns solemnly and movingly against the desire for revenge that so often follows the fall of dictatorship and which South Africa has so far impressively avoided. It is clear, though, that Soyinka himself cannot resist the impulse to vengeance.

Wole Soyinka aspires, it seems, to become Nigeria's Vaclav Havel: a philosopher-president overseeing the country's passage back to democracy. He certainly has the intellectual standing and courage for the role. It remains to be seen whether he can achieve the generosity of spirit - the capacity to bring people together - of a Havel, Nelson Mandela or Tutu. Despite being a country of such potential wealth and creativity, Nigeria remains mired in autocracy, corruption and factional violence. Soyinka may be too volatile, too much the angry old man, to attain the required qualities to lead the country back to democratic health.