A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a psychologist who served on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Part of her work, which involved trying to understand acts of evil committed during apartheid, led her to interview Eugene de Kock, one of the government’s most brutal officers, so brutal that he was known as the “Prime Evil.” Meeting him in prison, she finds an apparently sad and broken man, and she couldn’t help but respond with kindness, even as her response revolted her.

In A Human Being Died That Night, Gobodo-Madikizela reflects on her interviews with de Kock, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in general, and the difficulty of forgiveness. It’s a challenging book in more than one respect.

Although the book offers a short history of apartheid in its appendix, this book really isn’t a history. It’s much more personal than that, as Gobodo-Madikizela attempts to pick apart her own reactions to de Kock, to consider whether her kindness is misguided and whether forgiveness is possible, or even desirable, in cases of human rights abuses like those of de Kock. There were moments when I wished I understood the history better, so I could have a context for the incidents she talks about.

One of the things I appreciated about this book is the way the author considers the interactions between understanding and forgiveness and excuse-making. She encourages understanding not as a way to make excuses, but as a way to recognize our own vulnerabilities to evil and how we as individuals and societies can find ourselves on a path we didn’t intend to be on. I was especially struck by her section on how the White people of South Africa became numb to the violence of apartheid to the point that they didn’t see it anymore. (I feel that danger in our own country right now.) She also talks about how people define and redefine morality in light of circumstances. She considers the possibility of a mental defect and the ways people who are committing evil are able to cut themselves off from what they are doing. She asks a lot of hard questions, but doesn’t come to any clear conclusions. I’m not sure that it’s possible to come to any clear conclusions. As a Christian, that’s why I believe that, ultimately, judgment is left to God.

Of course, even if judgment is to be left to God, there must be consequences in this world. Gobodo-Madikizela doesn’t spend much time on what specific punishments should be meted out to those who do evil. She’s more interested in the psychic consequences, on both the evil doer and the survivors. She believes that dialogue leading to forgiveness is good for everyone involved and for the wider society. She makes it clear, however, that this is hard work, not just saying some words of absolution and moving on as if nothing has happened. Some sort of contrition and acknowledgment of the wrong is part of the process, as is the understanding that everyone involved is, in fact, a human being.

I’m still mulling over the ideas in this book, deciding how I think they apply to situations here in the U.S. For instance, I listened the other day to a Reveal episode about children being taken from their families at the border and Gobodo-Madikizela’s ideas got me thinking about the mental processes that made the agents think that was OK, how so many Americans even see this as a moral choice to do this (and the episode delves into this as well). It doesn’t feel like time for forgiveness, not while it’s still happening, and not while the perpetrators show no signs of understanding it’s wrong, but I value this book for helping me understand what may be happening in their minds. Maybe, someday, those next healing steps will be possible for the victims and for the country that turned its back.

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2 Responses to A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid

  1. I like reading books like this because I find it really fascinating how humans can choose to do such terrible things. But I never feel like I’ve gained any insight. Like you say, there aren’t any clear conclusions to come to. People do become numb, and inured to cruelty. I hope that I don’t. I feel the danger very much these days.

    • Teresa says:

      I feel it too. I’m still struggling to find the balance to stay informed about the horror, and the need to look away for my own mental health. I like that this book offers a way forward that doesn’t require waving the evil away.

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