Perpetrators and victims search for grace

A psychologist reports on the struggle to heal South Africa after decades of terror

Forgiveness can heal wounded societies. Indeed, victims require forgiveness to become "rehumanized." Those are two of the powerful messages of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela's moving meditations on her victim-centered work with South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But just as the wronged can forgive, so the most heinous perpetrators can know remorse and contribute significantly to reconciliation. An apartheid killer's remorse, for example, restores to victims "the sense that they are once again capable of effecting a profound difference in the moral community."

"A Human Being Died That Night" is an exploration of the far reaches of compassion, especially the compassion that the victimized can demonstrate for their persecutors and torturers. In the wells of such compassion are the restorative waters of therapy.

Gobodo-Madikizela is a clinical psychologist with a profound understanding of apartheid's cruelties and the remarkable resilience of wives and mothers of those who were destroyed, maimed, and killed by the extra-legal operations of the Afrikaner-dominated government from 1948 to 1994. Victims, she observes, desire to be rehumanized by the very person or persons who have deprived them of their humanity. That leads victims both to forgive and to enter into "a constructive encounter" with their antagonist, even when the offender is (as nearly all are) "morally undeserving." Thus, just as individuals behave much more destructively, and with far greater evil intent, than is usually imagined, so ordinary persons are capable of higher forms of virtue than is regularly assumed.

Gobodo-Madikizela supports such positive messages by telling examples. But the most significant of her encounters, and the one around which her book is centered, is the relationship that she forged with apartheid's most notorious political assassin - the regime's most thoroughly disagreeable personification of evil. When the author reached Eugene de Kock in the maximum security wing of Pretoria's Central Prison, he was in leg chains, serving a 212-year sentence for carefully prepared murders of young anti-apartheid activists.

Terror was a key weapon against opponents of the state and de Kock was its most successful operative, working both across the borders of neighboring countries to combat African National Congress infiltrators and within South Africa against militant underground guerrillas. Any kind of mayhem was his stock in trade - hidden bombs, death traps, mysterious abductions, and poisonings. He also tortured or brainwashed captured Africans to serve his malicious cause. De Kock was a confessed killer for a cause in which he had once fervently believed. The defense of apartheid against alleged communism and black radicalism had been sufficient to motivate him to become a relentless killing machine.

Yet, after Africans regained their country in 1994 and the Truth Commission brought perpetrators face to face with victims or the kin of victims, an entirely novel relationship between white and black began to evolve. When de Kock first testified, he apologized in person to the widows of several black policemen whom he had blown up because they were about to expose the regime's misdeeds. The widows were touched. The killer acknowledged their pain. The widows forgave him, and urged him to continue to change.

The author explored the meaning of de Kock's remorse and the widows' astonishing empathy in a series of extensive prison interviews. He reported relief from his apology. He wished that he could bring the dead back to life. Even de Kock sought to reaffirm that he was still human, that he still belonged, despite his crimes against humanity. He also reflected on loss. He had believed in the cause; but the cause proved hollow. Apartheid was defeated, so de Kock's unremitting depredations had been for naught. As he told Gobodo-Madikizela, "We fought for nothing."

Whatever the deepest roots of this postwar remorse, it seemed genuine. Moreover, the author believes that reciprocal acts of apology and forgiveness heal by breaking the bonds of hatred that tie victims and kin inextricably to those who did them harm. Forgiveness rises above the terrible act, refusing to be captured forever by evil. De Kock needed, pleaded for, his interlocutor's understanding. He became human again through her empathy. She could redeem him and in that way he could be rehabilitated. Likewise, the victims of apartheid could reaffirm themselves by affirming their oppressors.

The important messages of this remarkable book are many. But the powers of compassion and forgiveness are not the least of them.

Robert I. Rotberg directs Harvard University's Program on Intrastate Conflict and is president of the World Peace Foundation.

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