Looking for hope in an apartheid monster's eyes
The New York Times
By RACHEL L. SWARNS
May, 10, 2003
The black woman saw him whenever she thumbed through her newspapers or switched on the television: the tall white man with thick glasses.
He was Eugene de Kock, a former colonel in the South African police force, who led a counterterrorism unit that tortured and killed black activists during the apartheid years. He confessed to more than 100 acts of torture and murder, and his men called him Prime Evil.
She was Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a black psychologist appointed to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created to expose the crimes committed during white rule. She had watched apartheid shatter the lives of black people, so she understood when they called him a monster.
But when she looked into his eyes as he testified she thought she saw something else: remorse. And that was how she ended up driving to Pretoria Central Prison one day in 1997 to meet Mr. de Kock, one of the country's most notorious inmates.
"There was something about this face, a helplessness, something that pointed to a vulnerability there," Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela said in an interview at her home in Cape Town as she considered the origins of an unlikely rapport. "I had this notion of a little boy crying out inside of him.
"I was looking for hope, really. If this man, who everyone sees as the ultimate of evil during the apartheid era, can feel remorse and reach out, then there is a lot of hope for this country."
Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela, 48, describes her search for forgiveness and reconciliation across the color line in her book, "A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness," which was published in the United States this year and is to be published in South Africa soon.
It is the story of an almost unimaginable dialogue. But it is also an exploration of evil, innocence and the gray spaces in between. These issues are enormously relevant in postapartheid South Africa. In that country, former oppressors and their victims often share the same cities and towns and sometimes stumble across each other at the same banks and supermarkets. They struggle to find a way to make peace with the past and with each other.
Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela grew up during white rule and hailed the heroes of the antiapartheid struggle. But she saw the violence condoned by blacks as clearly as she saw the brutality of white rule. She is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town, and she knows all too well how goodness and evil can collide in people.
She studied young antiapartheid activists who were often revered yet who killed people viewed as traitors by putting tires around their necks and setting them alight.
At the truth commission, she discovered that she had unwittingly cheered the killing of a black official appointed by the white government. Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela and hundreds of other people had been cheering the end of a coup in the Transkei homeland. She found out later that the men quashing the coup had tortured and murdered the black official.
She asked herself: Were we so different from the whites who closed their eyes to the violence sponsored by the white regime?
"If I let off the black necklace murderers in my mind, would intellectual honesty force me to let off the likes of de Kock as well?" Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela asks in her book.
She decided instead that whites and blacks needed to be understood and forgiven for evil deeds if they expressed real remorse. So she went to prison to see Mr. de Kock, who was serving a 212-year prison sentence for some of his crimes.
He was wearing orange prison overalls. His feet were chained to a stool bolted to the floor. He smiled shyly and rose to greet her: "It's a pleasure to meet you." And with her heart pounding, she sat down across the table and began to listen.
"It took a lot of courage," Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate and chairman of the truth commission, said of Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela's decision to reach out.
"Just physical courage, going to sit in the same room," Mr. Tutu said in a telephone interview. "She demonstrated a very deep faith in the ultimate goodness of people."
But that kind of faith in the goodness of people, even those who have committed evil deeds, is dismissed in many quarters of South Africa. Many blacks point out that few of the senior white officials who ordered the torture and killings of black activists were willing to testify about their crimes.
Officials who testified honestly could receive amnesty. But there were often doubts about the sincerity of white officials who took that route. And many black victims of the white regime who still live in poverty frown upon the kind of reconciliation with whites that Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela seeks.
"People don't see the reason why they need to forgive," said Vonani Bila, the coordinator of a regional coalition of nonprofit development groups. "Those people who went through rigorous torture, they're not satisfied by the few people who have said sorry. A lot of people are very bitter."
Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela wrestled with these issues herself. During her meetings with Mr. de Kock, she sometimes wondered whether he was manipulating her, whether she was betraying her own people with her compassion for this white killer.
But she decided that it was critical for blacks to try to understand. And over the next six months, Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed him extensively and developed an unlikely camaraderie with him.
She listened as Mr. de Kock described himself as a foot soldier in a war run by generals and prime ministers who would never stand trial for giving the orders. He described the killings in vivid and graphic detail and said he acted with such brutality because he believed the apartheid government's warnings that black people would overrun and kill whites if they were not kept in their place. And he expressed deep remorse for what he had done. "I wish I could do more than say I'm sorry," Mr. de Kock said, his voice breaking. "I wish there was a way of bringing their bodies back alive."
Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela touched his hand to comfort him and immediately felt overwhelmed by waves of guilt. "I wondered: Is there a boundary I'm overstepping?" she remembered as she described the incident.
She was sitting at her kitchen table in her stately old house with wooden floors and stained glass windows. She is a tall gracious woman in stylish wire-rimmed glasses and linen trousers. Her personal journey has carried her from a life of hardship.
She grew up in Langa, an impoverished township near Cape Town, during white rule. Her parents ran a general store and her father sold gentleman's suits. He was so anguished by his routine humiliation by whites that he cried when he talked about it.
But even with the hardships, her parents found a way to keep slivers of hope in their lives. They were both amateur ballroom dancers and as they swirled across the dance floor after hard days of work they could forget the ugliness in their lives.
Similarly, their daughter has found hope where many others have not. Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela eventually became convinced that Mr. de Kock's remorse was real. She saw him as a tortured man who was swept up in the ideology and propaganda of an authoritarian and often evil regime.
He was repeatedly rewarded for his violent work by superiors who promoted and decorated him. Yet he said he wrestled with the morality of his crimes even as he was committing them. After one killing spree, he said, he was so haunted by the smell of death that he showered four or five times and threw away his clothes.
In prison the faces of his victims haunted him while he slept. He met with the widows of two of his victims during the commission hearings and asked for their forgiveness. The women told Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela that they believed he was sincere. He also became increasingly worried about Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela as they became closer. "I've been meaning to ask you this, right from our second interview," he asked her hesitantly one day. "Have I ever killed any of your friends or family?" She said no.
She said his face was filled with suffering and despair.
It is easy, she says, to demonize men like Mr. de Kock as monsters. And she does not absolve him for his crimes. But she says that sustained dialogue between perpetrators and victims is essential in societies like South Africa if former enemies hope to make peace with each other and find redemption for themselves.
Mr. de Kock declined a request for an interview about Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela. His lawyer, Schalk Hugo, said he "obviously holds her in high esteem." He is seeking a presidential pardon for his crimes, and Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela says she hopes he receives it.
She has not seen him since September, but she still speaks of him with warmth.
"Many black people were very skeptical about this: `Why should we hear their stories when they have murdered?' " Ms. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela said of her decision to reach out to Mr. de Kock. "But apartheid affected white people as well.
"I wanted to understand the notion of forgiveness in the context of so much tragedy and so much evil. I wanted to understand what do people mean by that."