Facing off with Prime Evil

03 March 2003
Evil and forgiveness: In her new book, A Human Being Died that Night, Assoc Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela writes on her encounters with Eugene de Kock, the former commander of the apartheid death squad base, Vlakplaas.

CONFRONTING evil and understanding its human face is the struggle that lies at the heart of A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, the acclaimed new book by Associate Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela in which she records her interviews with Eugene de Kock, the former commander of the apartheid death squad base, Vlakplaas.

The launch of the book in January in the United States just about coincided with the start of Gobodo-Madikizela's tenure with the UCT Department of Psychology, which she joined at the beginning of the year, fresh from lecturing and research fellowships in the US.

Educated at Fort Hare, Rhodes and UCT (PhD), she found most of the inspiration for the new release in her two-year stint with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in the late 1990s.

As a member of the TRC's Human Rights Violations Committee in Cape Town, Gobodo-Madikizela spent much of her time providing support for victims of human rights abuses and co-ordinating the public hearings processes in the Western Cape. She also interviewed family members of both victims and perpetrators of apartheid crimes.

It was as part of her later meetings with perpetrators that she would meet De Kock, with whom she would eventually spend 46 hours over a three-month period – him chained to a chair that was bolted to the floor. Her series of interviews with him – and the ubiquitous use of the word evil – would provide the focus for A Human Being Died that Night.

“I used 'evil' deliberately,” says Gobodo-Madikizela, “because I want to confront the reader with my struggle in the book, a struggle that raises questions about our notions of evil.” As a religious concept, evil is often viewed by people as something “outside” of themselves, and those who commit atrocities are seen as being “inhuman”, she adds.

“What I do in the book is challenge the reader to confront the human face of evil. Evil is a part of who we are and exists, potentially, in everyone.”

Her encounters with De Kock – dubbed “Prime Evil” – re-affirmed her belief that those seen as evil are, in fact, very human. “These deeds that we call evil, such as the atrocities committed by people such as Eugene de Kock, are deeds that emerge out of society, as well as the result of the tacit support by society itself.”

It is in addressing such issues that the TRC has helped both the victims and perpetrators come to terms with their past, comments Gobodo-Madikizela. While perpetrators attain a sense of redemption out of the dialogue, for victims these exchanges provide a sense of power – the power to forgive.

“When a perpetrator acknowledges wrongdoing and asks for forgiveness, they're in a sense giving back the victims their control, and they, the victims, regain a sense of power, to either grant or not to grant this forgiveness,” she comments.

A Human Being Died that Night has proven to be a hit in the US, where Gobodo-Madikizela has just completed a six-week, 12-city launch. The book has also earned rave reviews from a number of luminaries and publications, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, UCT's Emeritus Professor JM Coetzee, and, more recently, Washington Post and Time Magazine, the latter noting in its commentary that the author “has composed a beautiful moral document that is without a whisper of easy grace”.

Fresh from her expeditions in the US, Gobodo-Madikizela is settling into her life as a teacher at UCT, and preparing for her duties here. This includes presenting a third-year programme on community psychology, honours courses in memory and trauma and on her major research interest, forgiveness and trauma, as well as supervising clinical psychology students.

And while she has enjoyed her time in the US and its culture of intellectual exchange, being back home in South Africa is what she's always wanted, she says. “I wanted to teach in South Africa, where my work is based, and UCT has offered me some wonderful research opportunities and also a rich intellectual environment.”

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