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Photo by Elliott Shaffner
PUMLA GOBODO-MADIKIZELA’S HANDS are delicately boned, with long, tapered fingers. As she gestures, you can’t help noticing them. If you’ve read her book, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, you can’t help thinking that these are the same hands that reached out to touch the shaking, clenched hands of Eugene De Kock, the man known in South Africa as “Prime Evil” for his relentless pursuit and extermination of anti-apartheid activists.
Gobodo-Madikizela, 47, joined South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, serving as the only psychologist on its Human Rights Violations Committee. The commission took a historic new approach to dealing with criminals of an oppressive regime. “It was a mode of accountability that focused not on the retribution of punishment,” she explains, but on “the restoration of the dignity of both victims and perpetrators.” And forgiveness did not come cheap in post-apartheid South Africa. Apology from perpetrators was a serious business, a “cleansing process”: The doer of evil deeds acknowledged the crime, expressed remorse, made a public apology. The public nature of the process was essential. In a country where everything had been kept secret for so long, people were able to hear the truth about their past.
“You would be driving, and you would hear the voice of a victim who was tortured, their voice in your own car, in that small space. You hear somebody talking about what happened to them and breaking down on the stage of the Truth Commission, and you are present with them as they break down. You hear their voice. You hear their pain. You can’t escape it,” Gobodo-Madikizela says.
During her recent U.S. book tour (which included a stop at the L.A. Public Library, where I work as programs director), Gobodo-Madikizela agreed to meet me for an interview at her friend’s ranch house in the Valley. It was an unseasonably balmy day and hard to believe Gobodo-Madikizela had been on the road for weeks. She was gracious and composed, elegant in a copper-colored linen shirt and pearl earrings. She elected to sit outside in the yard — half in sun, half in shadow — ready to talk about good and evil, reconciliation and forgiveness.
It was Eugene De Kock, formerly commander of Koevoet — a notorious counterinsurgency unit of the South African army — who tested Gobodo- Madikizela’s own boundaries of forgiveness. She had heard him testify at a Truth Commission hearing, where the widows of two of the men he had murdered granted him forgiveness. But she met De Kock in person for the first time in 1998, at the maximum-security prison where he is now serving 212 years. In the prison consulting room where De Kock sat shackled to a chair, Gobodo-Madikizela questioned him about these widows. She wanted to understand just how remorseful he was. Tears came to his eyes, he trembled, became visibly distressed. “When the granting of forgiveness actually happens in that rich and full way,” she says now, “the perpetrators just can’t grasp it. And this is when the moment becomes for them an impossible demonstration of grace.”
De Kock told her, in a breaking voice, “I wish I could do much more than say I’m sorry. I wish there was a way of bringing their bodies back alive. I wish I could say, ‘Here are your husbands.’” That was when she reached out and touched his hand — the same “trigger hand” that had authorized and committed, as she puts it, “unspeakable acts of malice against people very much like myself.”
Her meditation on this simple act — so spontaneous, so human — is a resonant part of her book, already an essential text for anyone interested in learning how — after traumatic events — it is possible to transcend feelings of revenge and move on. “I was just reaching out in the way that we do when friends or even strangers are in pain. When someone is asking for empathy, you respond accordingly, because they are human beings.”
Driving home from the prison, she began to question her gesture. “I started to wonder what it means to touch somebody in that compassionate way. What it means to be so close to a person who had killed so many of my people so brutally. And when I woke up the following morning, I couldn’t lift my hand. It was totally numb. After a long anxious moment, I realized why I could not lift it. It was the hand that had reached out to touch De Kock. So my body was reacting to this deed, to this gesture of compassion, with repulsion, if you may, although intellectually and emotionally I did not experience it at the time as something wrong.”
It is difficult to fathom the idea of forgiving someone who has committed atrocities. In the literature on human-rights abuses, the very idea of “understanding” perpetrators is controversial. Though she understands the arguments, Gobodo-Madikizela’s feelings on this subject are unequivocal: “Understanding is often seen as explaining away evil. The fear is that you are giving it language, you are making something that is otherwise unspeakable and indescribable more describable to the mind. And yet you cannot change this behavior, you cannot learn from these things if you do not try to understand how they came about in the first place.”
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