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Book Review - A Human Being Died That Night: a South African Story of Forgiveness

 A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT: A South African Story of Forgiveness
by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Houghton Mifflin, 2003, 193 pages, $24.00
Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore

It is said that to forgive is divine, but how does forgiveness fit in a country where a white government has systematically subjugated, tortured and killed black citizens?

In her new book, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Capetown, offers an answer that grew out of conversations with Eugene de Kock, the commanding officer of the South African government's death squads. He ordered and carried out the torture and murder of dozens of anti-apartheid activists, earning the nickname “Prime Evil.”

During the 1990s, Gobodo-Madikizela served on the Human Rights Violations Committee of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). She visited De Kock several times in the prison where he is now serving a 212-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity.

“The experience with de Kock was weighing heavily on me,” Gobodo-Madikizela told me in interviews. “The book was my way of getting some closure in my mind and my heart.”

In a chapter called “Apartheid of the Mind,” Gobodo-Madikizela describes the thinking of white South Africans—“the polite church-goers, the cultured suburbanites, the voters”—about the “grim but good” business of terrorizing black citizens.

“De Kock's experience ... is reflective of the whole idea of apartheid, the compartmentalization of South African thinking. There were two South Africas: white and black. Similarly, there was the public world and the private world, the open and the covert. And they were rigidly separate. What happened covertly was fine, so long as it did not come out in the open. The two spheres did not collide. White South African bystanders were able to live with the brutality against blacks because it was being carried out in relative secret, in that ‘other' world. It was only when the truth came out in the open that some felt they could no longer live with it.”

The TRC held tribunals in which victims and survivors confronted policemen, government officials, and others who injured and killed blacks under apartheid. Meanwhile, victims and survivors had the opportunity to speak of their pain, question de Kock and others, and—if they chose—to offer forgiveness, something that could be given only once this mental apartheid had been broken and the existence of something to forgive been admitted.

But the idea of forgiveness is new—and uncomfortable—to many. “We expect the responses of revenge and vengeance, anger and hatred,” Gobodo-Madikizela said. “The idea of restorative justice is very new for people, especially in South Africa.”
She added that survivors hold on to their anger at those who killed their loved ones in order to feel connected with those loved ones. For them, the forgiving process would somehow discount their loved ones, and so the process happens much more slowly, if at all.

Forgiving racist abuse and killing can be a problem for blacks in this country as well.

“People here [in the U.S.] say that I have ‘sold out,'” she said.

The reason for this, she believes, is simple: Whereas black South Africans have received acknowledgement and apology from their oppressors, black people in America have not.

“People don't feel the importance of acknowledging this country's past and its treatment of black people,” she said. “Here, no one has acknowledged this wrongdoing in America's past at all. These are lived memories, and are passed on from generation to generation. In this country, Black people have been denied a voice and an opportunity to be heard.

“There is much anger among African Americans, and it is multi-layered,” she added. “So, when they look outside to South Africa, they don't understand that Black South Africans are at peace.”

Gobodo-Madikizela describes forgiveness as an act of power: “The decision to forgive can paradoxically elevate a victim to a position of strength as the one who holds the key to the perpetrator's wish. For just at the moment when the perpetrator begins to show remorse, to seek some way to ask forgiveness, the victim becomes the gatekeeper to what the outcast desires—readmission to the human community. And the victim retains that privileged status as long as he or she stays the moral course, refusing to sink to the level of evil that was done to her or him. In this sense, then, forgiveness is a kind of revenge, but revenge enacted at a rarefied level.”

Gobodo-Madikizela emphasized that, while forgiveness restored humanity to both oppressor and oppressed, it did not allow crimes to go unaddressed.

“The TRC was clearly about accountability,” she said. “I am of the opinion that there is greater accountability in something like the TRC than in traditional courtrooms, (where) you admit as little guilt as possible.

“In the TRC, perpetrators were rewarded for admitting their wrongdoing,” she added. The less they said, the worse their chances of amnesty. Perpetrators must speak of their crimes in public, and it is documented and broadcast. They do not go free.”

It remains to be seen whether South Africa itself will go free.

“The TRC was an experiment in healing,” she said. “The truth is, it is too early to tell how far forgiveness takes people who have suffered so much. But we do know that, at this moment in history, we are turning the potential for a bloodbath in South Africa into something else.”


Leah Samuel is a reporter and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Detroit News, The Progressive, In These Times, and elsewhere.

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