Events

Book Launch -- A Human Being Died that Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness

September 21, 2004 // 3:30pm5:00pm

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, author and member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Discussant: Reverend Mpho Tutu, Christ Church, Alexandria

Moderator: Ambassador Hattie Babbit, Director, Women Waging Peace Washington Office

South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela used a launch of her recent book, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, to reflect on the true meaning of forgiveness, and the mechanisms by which victims and victimizers can be reconciled, even in very traumatic circumstances. Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela explored the political, social and psychological implications of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) by recounting the story of the relationship she developed, as a black psychologist serving on the TRC, with Eugene de Kock, one of the most dreaded figures of the apartheid era.

After introductions, Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela began by providing some background on the psychological impact of severely traumatic experiences on the human psyche, postulating that victims tend to react to traumatic events, especially the loss of a loved one, by "freezing" the emotions that surround these experiences. In cordoning off these emotions, victims subconsciously block any chance of reconciliation and prevent the inner self from evolving in response to the changed circumstances that this trauma has yielded. Furthermore, traumatic memories are often relegated to the realm of the inexpressible, as things "too painful to talk about," and are thus left unresolved.

From this perspective, Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela proceeded to describe how the TRC sought to "unfreeze" these traumatic memories, in order to allow the victims—and all South Africans—to move forward in the post-apartheid era. She explained that the TRC recognized that when victims, responding to the death of a family member say, "We want to know who was responsible for this," their true aim is not to know intellectually the name of the perpetrator, but rather to know the perpetrator, and the circumstances surrounding the event, on a personal and emotional level. Controversially, when granting amnesty for past crimes the TRC did not require that the perpetrators repent their misdeeds; rather, they were simply asked to recount them in their entirety and to demonstrate that they were motivated by political, and not racist or sadistic, considerations.

While the decision not to require repentance seemed unjust at first, Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela said she came to the realization that this allowed for a true reconciliation, devoid of ulterior motives, between those perpetrators who decided to repent of their own accord, and their victims, on a scale that she did not believe possible. She presented a brief example of this process, which provided the central narrative of her book. Eugene de Kock, known as "Prime Evil," and the head of the state-sanctioned death squads, requested from his prison cell, to be introduced to the widows of his victims. As the facilitator of this meeting, Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela met with both de Kock and the widows many times, and began to see that the widows were "looking for an excuse to forgive" this man, and in so doing, free the memories of their husbands from the trauma wrought by their untimely deaths. De Kock, too, wanted to speak about the unspeakable events in which he played a leading role, and found redemption in recounting his memories to the widows, and to the psychologist, to whom he felt bound by these experiences.

Reverend Mpho Tutu offered informal commentary on Dr. Gobodo Madikizela's presentation. Rev. Tutu praised Madikizela's interpretation of the TRC, and reflected on the two concepts of "truth" and "reconciliation," which she observed were both religious and political notions. She stated that the most important outcome of the TRC was that South Africans could now point to a shared history, a consensus on what took place during the apartheid regime that is shared across ethnic and racial boundaries. She noted that this sort of shared history was absent in most nations, including the U.S. The other benefit was that the TRC allowed victims to "speak reality into being," to have their anguish validated, and thus have their experience become acknowledged and undeniable truth.

After Reverend Tutu's comments, Ambassador Hattie Babbitt moderated a question-and-answer session. Questions focused on several themes, especially the scope of true reconciliation and the applicability of this process to other regions of the world. In her responses, Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela acknowledged that the process was still incomplete; there still exists great social inequality in South Africa, and that some political actors outside of the apartheid government have not yet been held accountable. Furthermore, she acknowledged that as victims age, they may experience the trauma differently, and so reconciliation must always be an ongoing process. Both presenters responded to several questions regarding whether the South African experience might be replicated in other areas, such as in Kosovo or with regard to slavery in the U.S. They responded that reconciliation was necessary throughout the world; but reconciliation requires a strong will on the part of both the public and the political leadership, which is often difficult to obtain.

Mike Jobbins, Africa Program Assistant, ext 4158
Howard Wolpe, Director

 

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