The legacy of apartheid horror and violence is a heavy burden for many South Africans. Those who still mourn the loss of children, parents, siblings, beloved friends found some relief in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), an important and unique process that allowed perpetrators of violence and cruelty to atone to their victims and victims’ families. It allowed those victims, still alive, and their families to confront their torturers and to stand fearlessly before them and to choose to forgive or not to forgive those who expressed remorse. Many felt healed, other justified. Criminals went free to live with their sins, others went to jail, some for life as the death penalty has been abolished in South Africa.
When a member of the TRC, a clinical psychologist, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, returns to a prison to interview, and finally to know, one of the behind-the-scenes murderers in the dreaded secret police, she faces not only a man who committed unspeakable deeds in his country, but she faces the universal questions of the nature of evil and human violence, the possibility of transformation and the human capacity for forgiveness.
The story of this psychologist and the subject of her study, death squad chief, Eugene de Kock, and the story of racial division resulting in years of searing violence, leads ultimately to the universal search for meaning in human life. Gobodo-Madikizela was drawn to meet and know de Kock after his appearance before the TRC. He apologized for his crimes and asked to meet the widows of four men whose deaths he had ordered. Two of the widows, Mrs. Mgoduka and Mrs. Faku did meet him. They were moved by his atonement and forgave him. The author says that their response “to the mastermind of their husbands’ death was what led to the fundamental questions surrounding remorse and forgiveness” that she raises in her book. For some, she writes, the questions may be irrelevant. But South Africans must attempt to live in peace with their former enemies, their lives are intertwined, many may be their neighbours.
She confronts evil personified with an open heart, but with clear memories and often with fear and horror when de Kock describes, “details of his violent past with a vividness that was frightening.” To confront, to recognize, to know, evil in the heart of another is to acknowledge its presence in the heart of every person, including oneself. It follows that one must accept the possibility of good in every heart. That leads to the understanding that remorse, forgiveness and transformation are always possible, lights at the end of the dark tunnel. The author examines every aspect and reason for the acts of atonement and the giving of forgiveness in a relentlessly clear questioning of all events and behaviour – her own as well as that of others.
She compares the apartheid crimes with the Nazi crimes and finds more evidence of awareness of their evil in the testimony of the South Africans. She quotes Peter Malkin who captured the famous war criminal, Adolf Eichmann. He reported that his prisoner was unrepentant when admitting his crimes – just doing a job. But Malkin is moved to reflect on what he, himself, does – he realizes that he also has committed unjust and criminal acts. He also had followed orders absolutely for what seemed noble reasons. The universality of the ability to rationalize on the basis of patriotism, the greater good and lofty ideals is most terrifyingly portrayed in the whole book; that is one reason why I found A Human Being Died That Night so disturbing; it made me reflect also and wonder about my own rationalizations – and my own capacity for evil and good..
In order to forgive and to feel compassion for a perpetrator of evil and violence when one or one’s loved ones have been violated, tortured or murdered, one must have a sense of power and hope; one must be in a position where one is secure and the perpetrator can no longer commit deeds of horror. The author cautions that mercy should be granted cautiously. Ultimately that depends on a victory – violent or non-violent – over the system that produced the evil-doers. South African won that victory with blood and, as the author admits, some awful cruelty of their own, so the process of reconciliation is vital to break the cycle of violence. Gobodo-Madikizela believes that societal groups can transcend cycles of violence and forgive and that the result of this painful process will be, “a more authentic and lasting sense of self-esteem and of collective worth” for the scarred and victimized citizens of a new South Africa.