There’s no question that Eugene de Kock did some terrible things. As the commander of a secret-police unit in South Africa in the 1980s and ’90s, he kidnapped, tortured and killed numerous anti-apartheid activists.
Rather, the questions are: How do we come to terms with such a person? Do we write him off as a monster too inhuman to have any connection to you and me? Or do we try to understand how a human could commit such acts? And if he tries to apologize, can we forgive him? And if we do, can we find a way to forgive him without condoning his deeds?
South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela wrestled with all that while interviewing de Kock for her nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She turned those interviews into an acclaimed book, “A Human Being Died That Night,” which British playwright Nicholas Wright adapted into a play now being staged by Mosaic Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
The two actors in the show are struggling with those same questions. Erica Chamblee, the D.C. actress/dancer playing Gobodo-Madikizela, has to remain as composed and controlled as her character did when interrogating de Kock about the tortures and murders. And Chris Genebach, the Shakespeare Theatre Company regular who plays de Kock, has to admit to atrocities even as he tries to make de Kock’s case for forgiveness.
“As an actor I’ve been in the skin of some pretty horrible people,” Genebach says, “and some pretty wonderful people, too. That’s the job. It’s hard to say some of the things that Eugene says, but I have to do it to tell the story. . . . I have to show the audience what he showed Pumla: that he’s a fallible human being who’s done terrible things that he thought were right at the time.”
“As far as Erica goes, it’s difficult,” Chamblee admits. “I’ve asked our director and her team for images of the atrocities, to toughen up myself. Because I’m a softy; I’m not Pumla. She can look at these images and not react, so I have to be able to do the same. . . . I’m a black woman listening to what he’s saying, and I think the audience gets what she’s feeling just by looking at who I am.”
The show is set within the finite space of a gray-walled interview room at the Pretoria Central Prison, where de Kock is serving two life sentences. They are each trying to understand the other, but at the same time are on guard. How much can they trust each other? How much are they being used — by Gobodo-Madikizela to get her research material, by de Kock to get a pardon?
Gobodo-Madikizela is trying to balance her desire to understand what de Kock is telling her against her revulsion at what he’s telling her. At the same time, it’s clear that de Kock is trying to make a full confession to clear his conscience. But he also has ulterior motives to get revenge on the superiors who scapegoated him and to get released from prison.
In her interviews, Gobodo-Madikizela was driven by her belief that no one is a monster. If they’re a monster, she said, they’re not part of the human race and can’t change. But if they’re human, they can change, and we can try to prevent atrocities from happening again by thoroughly understanding why they happened before.
“I’ve looked at a lot of her on YouTube,” Chamblee says, “and there are things about Pumla that will help a play but also things that won’t help — the lecturing-psychologist side of her. So I focus on the parts of her that will help. What comes through most of all is her warmth, a Bishop Tutu warmth. My Pumla is going to show emotion more than the actual Pumla would, but that’s in the script. Rather than just asking the questions flatly as she might have in real life, I’m pushing him a bit more. I want to make sure that narrative drive is there.”
In the end, the play’s most telling moments may be those where each character’s facade cracks a bit. In one such scene, Gobodo-Madikizela’s persona as the unemotional interviewer breaks down when de Kock makes a callous remark about black men and AIDS. Her flash of anger startles him, and he drops the facade of the remorseful confessor to rudely press her about his pardon.
“He’s partially redeemed,” Genebach says, “but not completely redeemed. That’s so human.”
A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT: A South African Story of Forgiveness
by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Houghton Mifflin, 2003, 193 pages, $24.00
Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore
It is said that to forgive is divine, but how does forgiveness fit in a country where a white government has systematically subjugated, tortured and killed black citizens?
In her new book, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Capetown, offers an answer that grew out of conversations with Eugene de Kock, the commanding officer of the South African government's death squads. He ordered and carried out the torture and murder of dozens of anti-apartheid activists, earning the nickname “Prime Evil.”
During the 1990s, Gobodo-Madikizela served on the Human Rights Violations Committee of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). She visited De Kock several times in the prison where he is now serving a 212-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity.
“The experience with de Kock was weighing heavily on me,” Gobodo-Madikizela told me in interviews. “The book was my way of getting some closure in my mind and my heart.”
In a chapter called “Apartheid of the Mind,” Gobodo-Madikizela describes the thinking of white South Africans—“the polite church-goers, the cultured suburbanites, the voters”—about the “grim but good” business of terrorizing black citizens.
“De Kock's experience ... is reflective of the whole idea of apartheid, the compartmentalization of South African thinking. There were two South Africas: white and black. Similarly, there was the public world and the private world, the open and the covert. And they were rigidly separate. What happened covertly was fine, so long as it did not come out in the open. The two spheres did not collide. White South African bystanders were able to live with the brutality against blacks because it was being carried out in relative secret, in that ‘other' world. It was only when the truth came out in the open that some felt they could no longer live with it.”
The TRC held tribunals in which victims and survivors confronted policemen, government officials, and others who injured and killed blacks under apartheid. Meanwhile, victims and survivors had the opportunity to speak of their pain, question de Kock and others, and—if they chose—to offer forgiveness, something that could be given only once this mental apartheid had been broken and the existence of something to forgive been admitted.
But the idea of forgiveness is new—and uncomfortable—to many. “We expect the responses of revenge and vengeance, anger and hatred,” Gobodo-Madikizela said. “The idea of restorative justice is very new for people, especially in South Africa.”
She added that survivors hold on to their anger at those who killed their loved ones in order to feel connected with those loved ones. For them, the forgiving process would somehow discount their loved ones, and so the process happens much more slowly, if at all.
Forgiving racist abuse and killing can be a problem for blacks in this country as well.
“People here [in the U.S.] say that I have ‘sold out,'” she said.
The reason for this, she believes, is simple: Whereas black South Africans have received acknowledgement and apology from their oppressors, black people in America have not.
“People don't feel the importance of acknowledging this country's past and its treatment of black people,” she said. “Here, no one has acknowledged this wrongdoing in America's past at all. These are lived memories, and are passed on from generation to generation. In this country, Black people have been denied a voice and an opportunity to be heard.
“There is much anger among African Americans, and it is multi-layered,” she added. “So, when they look outside to South Africa, they don't understand that Black South Africans are at peace.”
Gobodo-Madikizela describes forgiveness as an act of power: “The decision to forgive can paradoxically elevate a victim to a position of strength as the one who holds the key to the perpetrator's wish. For just at the moment when the perpetrator begins to show remorse, to seek some way to ask forgiveness, the victim becomes the gatekeeper to what the outcast desires—readmission to the human community. And the victim retains that privileged status as long as he or she stays the moral course, refusing to sink to the level of evil that was done to her or him. In this sense, then, forgiveness is a kind of revenge, but revenge enacted at a rarefied level.”
Gobodo-Madikizela emphasized that, while forgiveness restored humanity to both oppressor and oppressed, it did not allow crimes to go unaddressed.
“The TRC was clearly about accountability,” she said. “I am of the opinion that there is greater accountability in something like the TRC than in traditional courtrooms, (where) you admit as little guilt as possible.
“In the TRC, perpetrators were rewarded for admitting their wrongdoing,” she added. The less they said, the worse their chances of amnesty. Perpetrators must speak of their crimes in public, and it is documented and broadcast. They do not go free.”
It remains to be seen whether South Africa itself will go free.
“The TRC was an experiment in healing,” she said. “The truth is, it is too early to tell how far forgiveness takes people who have suffered so much. But we do know that, at this moment in history, we are turning the potential for a bloodbath in South Africa into something else.”