Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela – A Human Being Died that Night

Apartheid is the Afrikaans word meaning “apartness” that defined South African existence from the late 1940s until the early 1990s. This racial divide was implemented and enforced by the National Party to keep the white man in charge and the black man under his thumb. My thesis work centered around three of Nadine Gordimer’s novels spanning the time period and my research forced me into a bloody, heartbreaking world where destiny was decided by race. There were times when I had to put my research away, to walk away from the truth of South African existence, for fear of become so affected that my work become biased due to my personal beliefs of wrong and right. I am still very interested in South African literature, and while my interests continue to lean toward the white voice in the racially divided world, I do not limit my scope.

I picked up Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness as a research source. I never used it and just now got around to reading it. Gobodo-Madikizela is a clinical psychologist, not a writer, but at times, the passion of what she is discussing gives way to a poetic voice that is not scientific in nature. It was those glimpses that captivated me most. The work is about the author’s study into the mind of one of the worst killers known to apartheid: Eugene de Kock; a man currently serving a 212 year sentence for crimes against humanity.

Gobodo-Madikizela is a black woman, born and raised in South Africa, whose life was shaped by the atrocities implemented by the National Party. She has served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and worked closely with victims of apartheid’s bloody underbelly. She wondered prior to her meetings with de Kock how she would handle being face to face with a demon, especially being of the race that was so oft at the business end of his sword. She was set to be disgusted by this man brought in bound by chains – to hate every bone in his body – but something strange happened during her many interviews; the black woman who had personally faced the horrors inflicted on her people began to see the white man who had ordered and executed so many of the deaths and beatings not as a monster, but as a human. Her case study became a personal journey to forgiveness.

She is very quick to depict the humanness in de Kock – to capture his uncertainty after being punished for what he calls “lost ideologies.” When she asked him what his lost ideologies felt like, he replied: “I think that I lost – it’s a feeling of loss. Well, the first thing that goes is innocence. I mean, there’s no more fairy tales and Bambi. That is gone. We killed a lot of people, they killed some of ours. We fought for nothing, we fought each other basically eventually for nothing. We could have all been alive having a beer. And the politicians? If we could put all politicians in the front lines with their families, and grandparents, and grandchildren – if they are in the front lines, I don’t think we will ever have a war again. I think it’s educated people, very educated people, who sit in parliament and decide about war. So I am confused. I am very confused. I am just very tired” (78). Gobodo-Madikizela has set up her reader for this moment by explaining how the very government that had ordered de Kock’s actions, had required his allegiance to their mission, turned on him and let all the blame, all the blood, rest in his hands. It was at this point in the study that I also began to empathize with the man who became a scapegoat in punishing an entire country’s regime for crimes against humanity.

There are a couple of great scenes where she reaches out and touches him to provide solace, and where she calls him “Eugene” and makes the distinction between the person and the monster.

This is an important turning point because the ability to empathize, to forgive those that wrong you, is a very human trait. Gobodo-Madikizela saw in de Kock a man who thought he was doing the right thing, who was following his orders, and who had battled his own demons while doing so. She saw a man who was sorry for what he had a done. A man who saw his victims as people and she saw what that did to him. She realized he wasn’t a monster and she realized she had to forgive him if any healing was to occur. And that’s her message – she recognizes the importance of admitting when you’re wrong and being granted forgiveness in the healing process.

“There are many people who find it hard to embrace the idea of forgiveness. And it is easy to see why. In order to maintain some sort of moral compass, to hold on to some sort of clear distinction between what is depraved but conceivable and what is simply off the scale of human acceptability, we feel an inward emotional and mental pressure not to forgive, since forgiveness can signal acceptability, and acceptability signals some amount, however small, of condoning. There is a desire to draw a line and say, ‘Where you have been, I cannot follow you. Your actions can never be regarded as part of what it means to be human.’ Yet not to forgive means closing the door to the possibility of transformation” (103).

This is a fantastic case study and I think anyone who has studied apartheid and the scars left in its wake, need to read it. It’s not a fun, light read. It won’t make you laugh, but perhaps it will make you consider your actions, your humanity, and what makes one deserving of forgiveness.

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