Reconciliation, in its literal sense, is the act of making two things compatible with each other — whether in checking for informational consistency or in reestablishing cordial relations. In her documentary Guguletu Seven (2000), director Lindy Wilson explores both meanings as she chronicles a notorious police attack on an anti-apartheid group in South Africa. In profiling multiple parties involved — officers at the scene of the crime, heartbroken mothers of victims, and the determined investigators of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — Wilson reveals an ultimate struggle to achieve peace: both in creating an accurate account of that day and in mending the broken relationships that followed.
Guguletu Seven unfolds very much like a crime thriller, flitting between multiple accounts of the same event before arriving at some ultimate truth. The opening scene, then, is intentionally ambiguous, laying out a loose timeline of events that is later revisited, dissected, and elucidated. Eerie music accompanies a succession of surveying shots — both handheld, from the vantage of a moving car, and stationary, from behind the cover of fences and walls — that culminate in a slew of gunshots against blurry pans. The details of the event are just as unclear: never does Wilson establish the victims or perpetrators of the shoot-out, nor assign a singular point of view to the establishing shots. It’s an undercover hunt that leaves the audience in the same position as many of the documentary’s subjects — yearning for clarification.
A smooth transition to authentic police footage outlines the event at the crux the film: seven anti-apartheid freedom fighters, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three, were killed by members of the South African Police Force on March 3rd, 1986 in the township of Guguletu. The narrator’s consistent emphasis on the victims being “black,” coupled with prolonged shots of their bloodied bodies being dragged away under the suburban daylight, suddenly sways viewers toward a government-endorsed conceptualization of the massacre — in an act of self defense, a predominantly white police force attacked the “terrorists” who charged at them with hand grenades. It’s a view emphasized later in the film, when the same police officers, ten years after the event, defend their actions during a subpoena: their killings were a necessary (if not heroic) act of violence.
But a slow-paced uncovering of clues throughout the documentary suggests otherwise. Each victim suffered dozens of gunshot wounds, many of which were fired at close range; the weapons strewn across their bodies seem to have been staged; and at least one police officer posed triumphantly with a dead body as if it were a “trophy.” Why, then, did the police ensure (and even take pride in) the murders of these men? Through in-person interviews and verbal narration over recreated footage, Zenzile Khoisan of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee recalls the investigation that led to their final breakthrough: Guguletu was not a spontaneous retaliation, but rather a premeditated massacre by members of Vlakplaas, a South African counterinsurgency death squad.
Alongside the politically-nuanced detective work of the TRC, however, is another layer of investigation: the distraught inquisition of the victims’ mothers. These women — profiled through in-person interviews and courtroom testimonies — offer an emotionally-charged counterpart to the TRC’s diplomacy. “Our own children were not even treated like ants,” one mother states, before explaining that the only way she could identify her son’s wounded body was by looking at his untainted feet. Such perspectives humanize the victims and those affected by their deaths. While the TRC performs the literal investigation, it’s the mothers, too, who yearn for clarification and peace.
Their final response, then, is both intuitive and baffling. In a group meeting with Thapelo Mbelo, one of the assassins at Guguletu, multiple mothers offer him forgiveness — not out of respect, per se, but because they finally have a full and accurate narrative of their sons’ deaths. For them, that’s victory enough.