Watching Red Dust (2005-05-28)

Red Dust uses the subplot of the return of Sarah Barcant (Hilary Swank from the thrilling Insomnia and the improbable The Core) to her South Africa hometown to facilitate the dramatization of amnesty hearings. The plot centers one fictional decision of the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commision (TRC) in the late 1990s. The TRC under Archbishop Desmond Tutu eased the transition from apartheid to representative democracy under Nelson Mandela. The hearing in the film involved the interrogation of Alex Mpondo and his friend Steve Sizela, African National Congress (ANC) members, by a local police officer Dirk Hendricks and his supervisor.

Red Dust includes flashbacks to beatings and torture, including wetting a bag placed over the head of the detainee to simulate drowning. When asked why he showed little remorse for his participation in the widespread human rights violations under apartheid, Dirk replies, "It was war." Beatings, indefinite detentions, torture, using war to justify human rights violations--these were part of the crime of apartheid.

It consequently troubles me to contemplate these actions in support of our representative democracy. A Church Report summary includes 71 "substantiated cases of detainee abuse involving 121 victims and six deaths." Department of Defense documents released to the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act describe placing a bag over the detainee's head and beating him. News articles describe "water-boarding" as a technique the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) uses for interrogation. This is the same wet-bag technique portrayed in Red Dust. The military requested permission to use this technique, but the Secretary of Defense authorized almost all techniques except this one. Numerous citations are available to those concerned about torture.

What answer will this administration give? "It was war"? South Africa, too, considered itself involved in a war on terror; indefinite detention without trial was permitted under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 (the Act that permitted the arrest of Steve Biko). Such a war does not justify human rights violations.

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