Monday, March 5, 2012

Book Review: A Human Being Died That Night

        In A Human Being Died That Night Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela provides interesting insight into apartheid, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and the how people dealt with the aftermath of apartheid.  Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a black South African psychologist who interviews one of the most notorious state perpetrators of violence during apartheid, Eugene de Kock, who ran death squads in South Africa, Namibia, and in crossborder raids into Botswana to “eliminate” state targets.  The interviews took place in a maximum-security prison in Pretoria where de Kock was serving a 212-year sentence for his crimes during apartheid.
       As Gobodo-Madikizela conducts the interviews she reflects on her experience under apartheid and how it differs from that of de Kock.  She discovers that there are two sides to de Kock- “Prime Evil” who forgets how many people he has killed and also the loving fathers that is fiercely protective of his family.  She also explores the culpability of the state in sending him on missions to get rid of enemies of the state but officially deny any responsibility.  De Kock was awarded many medals for his successes, including the highest South African award, the Silver Star, but later condemned by former President de Klerk for being excessive and a rouge operator.  It was interesting as Gobodo-Madikizela broke down the system of apartheid with its support from the official Afrikaaner church, social organizations (Broederbond), security police, judicial system, and state that condemned the African National Congress (ANC) as terrorists and sanctioned de Kocks war on terror.  The apartheid state convinced its Soldiers that they had to make a stand and defend the country or else it would go the way of the Congo in the 1960s and they had to “Fight, resist, sacrifice, or you will be wiped out by the black man” (p. 73).  Gobodo-Madikizela frequently compares the apartheid government to the Nazis that try to exterminate the Jews but ultimately decides apartheid isn’t as evil.
       Near the end of the book Gobodo-Madikizela reflects more on the process of forgiveness and reconciliation with her experiences with de Kock and the TRC.  During the TRC hearings she also conducted outreach programs that gave her the opportunity to interact with others that suffered during apartheid.  Some complained that the process was “opening old scars” and digging up past trauma where the victims had “put grass over the past” (p. 88).  However, Gobodo-Madikizela concludes that the process was largely therapeutic, allowed people to move on, fostered forgiveness, and helped society begin the healing process.
Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. 2003. A Human Being Died That Night. Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin: Boston.

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