A South African Story of Forgiveness

By Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Houghton Mifflin. 193 pp. $24

At fewer than 200 pages, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela's new book might prompt readers to think it's too slight to tackle the weighty issues it sets out to address: the nature of evil, apartheid's lingering scars and the pioneering work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Yet its brevity and sheer readability make A Human Being Died That Night a landmark in post-conflict studies -- and a primer for a more general audience on justice based in reconciliation rather than revenge.

Gobodo-Madikizela's book is a startlingly personal account of her tenure at the TRC (which was established in 1995 by South African president Nelson Mandela) and her series of interviews with one of the Commission's "star witnesses": former police colonel and mass-killer Eugene de Kock. Gobodo-Madikizela sought interviews with de Kock (who was dubbed "Prime Evil" for his role in engineering countless apartheid-era killings) to answer a question that had dogged her throughout the TRC's carefully orchestrated psychological drama of public confession and amnesty: "Was evil intrinsic to de Kock, and forgiveness therefore wasted on him?"

Gobodo-Madikizela's choice of de Kock is a masterstroke, and not only because of the indisputable evil of the war he waged against apartheid's opponents from a farm compound with the forbidding moniker "Vlakpass." After apartheid had crumbled away (and de Kock had been sentenced to 212 years in prison for his crimes), de Kock began stripping away the last layers of the denial that continues to insulate the final generation of apartheid leaders. De Kock not only owned up to his own crimes; he named those who had given him his orders. "Prime Evil" put a human face on the apartheid government's inhuman repression.

Much of the book's narrative pull comes from Gobodo-Madikizela's tentative movement toward understanding and, ultimately, forgiving de Kock -- without at the same time diminishing his many crimes. One signature moment comes during an interview with de Kock, who is convulsed with remorse at relating his own actions; Gobodo-Madikizela reaches out to touch the man's "trigger hand," only to be caught up short by immediate, personal revulsion and the larger implications of her gesture of kindness.

Writing about apartheid's wounds so soon after the regime's collapse is a difficult task, but only at rare moments does Gobodo-Madikizela seek refuge in clinical jargon or unfiltered moral outrage. A Human Being Died That Night is written with clarity, energy and enormous empathy -- and its author has a healthy capacity for self-criticism that steers the book clear of a sneering sanctimony. In fact, some of Gobodo-Madikizela's harshest words are reserved for Winnie Mandela-Madikizela (no relation to the author), the former wife of President Mandela who was linked to 1989 murders of activists in Soweto. The author argues that Mandela-Madikizela's grudging and uninformative appearance before the TRC and her triumphant public embrace of the mother of a victim of that 1989 violence "stripped the victim of what we call dignity, the reverse of what the TRC hearings were supposed to do." (Mandela-Madikizela's ebullient stonewalling also stands in stark contrast to de Kock's stern cooperation.)

The author never overlooks how painful the TRC's workings have been for the victims, the perpetrators and those who served on the commission. One mother whose 11-year old son was killed by police in 1986 asks Gobodo-Madikizela: "Just tell me, have you come here to open our scars?" At that moment, Gobodo-Madikizela writes, "I felt like a messenger who travels around villages bringing bad news, breaking people's hearts, without staying to pick up the pieces." For all its personal voice and painfully rendered detail, A Human Being Died That Night sells itself more than a little short by insisting that it is a "South African Story of Forgiveness." Gobodo-Madikizela's powerful reflections on the South African truth and reconciliation process are woven tightly into the narrative -- as is the TRC's potential utility in binding the wounds of future conflicts. Indeed, Gobodo-Madikizela's hard-won experience lends tremendous weight to her arguments in favor of the TRC's emphasis on healing through a series of personal and public expiations that creates a shared version of "truth" in a society divided by violence. "An important condition for the possibility of democratization after totalitarian rule," she writes, "is the forging of a vocabulary of compromise and tolerance, especially in the aftermath of mass tragedy."

That vocabulary, argues Gobodo-Madikizela, is forged only by dialogue. Among the most provocative moments of A Human Being Died That Night are the author's comparisons of the TRC and current notions of international justice. Gobodo-Madikizela writes scathingly about the inherent failings of revenge as a model for justice -- and points to the quagmires of the current international tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia as proof of its inadequacy. "We have come to rely too narrowly on retribution as the only legitimate form of justice," the author observes, "and on the Nuremberg trial model as the only one capable of adequately addressing state-orchestrated atrocities."

The model of South Africa's TRC, Gobodo-Madikizela argues, not only fosters a dialogue that helps to heal victims of war crimes but also acknowledges that atrocities are committed by human beings. Forgiving a state-sponsored mass murderer such as de Kock, the author seems to argue, is an important individual act. But creating a mechanism for such reconciliation on a broader scale is just as important.

A Human Being Died That Night is a personal journey, yet it also offers a blueprint of hope for the Balkans, the Middle East -- and anywhere else that systemic violence has ruptured human relations. *

Richard Byrne is U.S. editor for the Belgrade-based literary and political journal Biblioteka Alexandria.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela with Bishop Desmond Tutu in the documentary "Long Night's Journey Into Day"