Human rights activist and educator. University of Transkei, South Africa, instructor; served with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1996—; University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa, associate professor of psychology; Unilever Ethics Centre, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, adjunct professor. Brandeis Ethics Center, Coexistence Program, faculty affiliate; taught in the United States at Harvard University, Brandeis University, Wellesley College, and Tufts University.
Awards from Harvard University, University of Southern California, Tufts University, and the University of Michigan; peace fellowship, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies; Harvard Divinity School fellow, 2000-01; honorary doctor of laws degree from Holy Cross College, 2002.
A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003, published as A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid, Mariner Books (Boston, MA), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, and to works by others, including Truth and Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, edited by J. Edelstein, New Press (New York, NY), 2001.
South African professor and clinical psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela has long been involved with human rights issues and frequently lectures on the topics of vengeance and forgiveness. During the 1980s, she served as an expert witness for attorneys representing black anti-apartheid activists, and because of her work on behalf of children in the Eastern Cape region in the early 1990s, she was appointed chair of a UNICEF project that studied the state of children in South Africa. Beginning in 1996, Gobodo-Madikizela served as one of the ten members, along with Nelson Mandela, of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The history leading up to the establishment of the commission goes back several decades to the period when the African National Congress (ANC), led by Mandela, carried out peaceful protests against the cruelty of apartheid. On March 21, 1960, a demonstration of several thousand protested the pass laws that increased control over blacks by requiring that they carry internal passports. The police fired into the crowd, killing sixty-seven and wounding 186, including women and children. With this act of aggression the ANC became more radical, and Mandela was ultimately arrested and imprisoned.
Over the next three decades, black South African political activists and others suffered record numbers of tortures, killings, and detainments, and police who were afforded nearly unlimited power were able to cover up their activities. But in the early 1990s, President B. W. Botha and his administration faced up to the fact that the country was being torn apart by violence. He released Mandela and established the Convention for a Democratic Election in South Africa (CODESA). In 1994, the majority put Mandela in office.
But there was still the issue of how the crimes of apartheid could be reconciled, and thus the TRC was formed, a commission that not only dealt with the human rights violations of the government, but also those committed by the resistance. In all, some 22,000 victims testified before the commission, which included Gobodo-Madikizela. During the period in which she was teaching in the United States, she began her account of the history behind the TRC and her work on the commission, titled A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness.
A writer for the Web site Women Waging Peace wrote that "the most profound experience of Pumla's career with the TRC was witnessing the incredible phenomenon of forgiveness between victims and perpetrators. The desire by the many victims to meet their perpetrators was something she had never imagined would happen," and that experience gave her a feeling of hope.
One of the major witnesses before the commission was death squad leader Eugene de Kock, a former police colonel dubbed "Prime Evil" for his role in the mass killings. He was sentenced to 212 years in a Pretoria prison for his crimes. De Kock used bombs and other devices to kill anti-apartheid leaders, and he reached across borders, as well as within South Africa itself, to capture guerrillas and infiltrators. He then used whatever means necessary to extract information, including brainwashing, poisoning, and torture. Amazingly, women whose husbands and sons became the victims of his crimes eventually forgave him when he expressed his remorse.
Beginning in 1997, Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed de Kock for nearly fifty hours, as he sat in prison chained to a stool that was bolted to the floor for her protection. Early in the book she makes references to the Silence of the Lambs character Hannibal Lector.
Richard Byrne commented in Washington Post Book World that "much of the book's narrative 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."
Time's Lance Morrow noted that "the gesture startled them both. Around such moments, Gobodo-Madikizela has composed a beautiful moral document that is without a whisper of easy grace."
Robert I. Rotberg reviewed the book in Christian Science Monitor, saying that Gobodo-Madikizela "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."
Gobodo-Madikizela compares the work of the TRC with present-day ideas of revenge as a mode of justice. A Kirkus Reviews contributor felt that "there's much forgiving to be done in this world, and this primer in compassion makes a fine start."
Byrne concluded by saying, "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."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, December 15, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, p. 712.
Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 2003, Robert I. Rotberg, review of A Human Being Died That Night.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2002, review of A Human Being Died That Night, p. 1673.
Library Journal, February 1, 2003, James Thorsen, review of A Human Being Died That Night, p. 101.
Publishers Weekly, January 20, 2003, review of A Human Being Died That Night, p. 74.
Time, January 27, 2003, Lance Morrow, review of A Human Being Died That Night, p. 60.
Washington Post Book World, February 16, 2003, Richard Byrne, review of A Human Being Died That Night, p. 4.
Women Waging Peace,http://www.womenwagingpeace.net/ (July 2, 2003), Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, "Reconciling the Past."*