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By David Marchese, NY Times  —

Twenty-five years ago, after the end of apartheid, South Africa established its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission’s subsequent public hearings were an attempt to provide victims of the country’s brutal white-nationalist regime a healing forum in which to tell their stories and also be told the truth — by perpetrators, often speaking in exchange for amnesty — about what happened to loved ones who were killed or disappeared. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela was a psychologist on the T.R.C. who worked to elicit testimony from victims and perpetrators, most famously Eugene de Kock, a member of the South African police force who admitted to scores of state-sanctioned murders. Her encounters with de Kock formed the basis of her critically acclaimed 2003 book, “A Human Being Died That Night,” which was adapted in 2013 into a similarly acclaimed play of the same name. In the years since the T.R.C., Gobodo-Madikizela, now 65 and a professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, has become a leading authority on remorse and forgiveness, two subjects that remain fraught in her country as well as our own. “Healing is not an endpoint, a goal that we reach,” she says. “We have to look at it in its complexity. But the process can’t happen on its own.”

Looking back at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we can say that it was successful insofar as it enabled certain truths to come to light and helped South Africa’s transition to democracy. But a lot of people were not held accountable. The leadership of the National Party,1 for instance. So I have a twofold question: What is the relationship between truth and justice? And to what extent was justice served by the T.R.C.? The way that I want to answer this question is also twofold. One, to speak about the notion of justice and then to speak about the failure of accountability at the top level. So, the notion of justice is not simply about prosecutorial justice.

Meaning revenge. Exactly. When you think about prosecutorial justice, you’re thinking about wanting to punish someone. When you’re hurt and wounded, that’s often the inclination. But it’s not one that will take us far. Especially in a society like South Africa, where there is always the potential that the person who killed my loved one might be living down the road. In fact, at the start of the commission, there were people who wanted the perpetrators not to apply for amnesty. They wanted accountability through the courts. However, there were millions of South Africans whose only avenue for justice would be the T.R.C. I remember the first time I went to speak on national radio about an outreach program we had launched. I was on my way home, and I received a call from a woman in one of the townships in Cape Town. She called to say, “Pumla, there is a woman here who wants to speak about what happened to her husband.” Mrs. Gishi was her name. She was 72 years old. Her husband was murdered by a vigilante group working with the South African Defense Force. Her son went mad because his father died. She wanted to tell her story. So when we talk about justice and living together, there’s justice of that kind: “I have been heard, and that story is going to be documented.” The problem, of course, is the other part of the justice question. Mrs. Gishi lost her husband, an important breadwinner. Her son went mad — another potential breadwinner. That is the injustice that was never addressed, and the responsibility for that is on the shoulders of the government that came after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was not imaginative enough to make right all of that. And when it comes to the leaders who decreed the worst parts of the apartheid policies, there was no honest accountability or truth-telling. I remember  de Klerk 2 came to Harvard after he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

You were there, too, and you asked him a question about whether foot soldiers like Eugene de Kock were justified in saying that the president was also to blame for violence against Black people. Yes, and with a straight face de Klerk was like, It’s got nothing to do with us. They overstepped. Even if that were true, he should say, “Under my watch these things should not have happened.” Just this year, de Klerk stated that apartheid was not a crime against humanity! After all that has been revealed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Murderous operations, the secret police, Vlakplaas, where Eugene de Kock operated — they were condoned by the government. They were supported by taxpayers. So that complicity is also an injustice that has not been addressed.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela at the Massachusetts State House in 1994 filling out her absentee ballot for South Africa’s first all-races democratic election. Tory Wesnofske/Associated Press

What connections are there between what did or didn’t work with the T.R.C. and the ruptures in South African society today? So many of us were drawn to the commission because we were inspired. You could feel in the country that something was shifting. You could feel that even with the hearings themselves. The moment of the opening of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission — hearing the singing of “Lizalis’idinga lakho Nkosi,” which translated means, “Let thy promise be fulfilled, Lord.” That moment was filled with hope that something is going to change. But this generation of people born after apartheid is not experiencing the future that was imagined. As a result, they are rising up. We’ve seen one of the greatest student uprisings in South Africa; we’ve seen burnings in recent years of property that belongs to the government. You ask yourself, How can people for whom government services are created destroy this stuff? But you have also to ask, What happens to people when they are born into freedom but have no means of actually enjoying this freedom?

Does that suggest that any real reconciliation would have required more of an economic-reparations aspect? Absolutely. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did bring the country together. The point that I’m making is that we made it too easy. You tell your story, the other person is moved and we express a sense of forgiveness. Which is great. I’m not undermining that. There is suffering, but at the same time we needed to do something to mitigate the impacts of this pain. This is where addressing economic injustices comes in. That didn’t happen at the right time, and now it’s not happening. The language of reconciliation is limited when used in isolation from other critical issues of social justice. Some things have changed. I mean, I am a professor at a university. But the structural problems still do exist.

How much is the A.N.C.4 leadership after Mandela to blame for that? David, this is a problem. The reason that South Africa seemed to be working is because we had an outstanding leader, a person of integrity, Nelson Mandela, who led with grace and dignity. He set the tone. I like the notion, it comes from one of your former presidents, of seeking the better angels of our nature. It reminds us what we are about as citizens. It’s doing for the good of others, for the good of the country. And leadership that does that creates an ethos that is about restoring, building bridges. We saw that in South Africa. Those first Mandela years did bring us that hope. There was a little continuity after Mandela during Thabo Mbeki’s 5 years. But things went south. When at the level of leadership there is chaos, we should not expect that healing will take place in the body politic. The worst period was when Jacob Zuma 6 took over as president. There was no shame. There was nothing beyond bounds.

Sounds familiar. Absolutely. I have to tell you, what is going on in America with Trump has reminded me of when I was waiting for Zuma to concede defeat and allow Ramaphosa to take over. You know, there’s wrong that has to be righted before you can talk about reconciliation, and some of it didn’t happen in South Africa. Which is why we are where we are. The commission had recommended that one of the things that has to happen is to pay attention to how we rebuild families, how we rebuild communities. And how you do that is ensuring that structures like schools are properly running. What you find today is the brokenness not just of the culture but of the environment where people live. They are places not really suitable for the dignity of human life. People don’t feel a sense of worth. They sense that their government doesn’t care for them.

What has been the T.R.C.’s most lasting success? The question is very difficult. I would say that it’s the possibility; it’s witnessing the possibility that things can be different.

Is there anything America could or should learn from how South Africa tried to heal its divisions? Or more broadly, do you see any parallels between the current situations in the two countries? One of the problems now is the generation of white kids who are also inheriting a history, and with that history they are inheriting the vision of superiority. For young white people who want to hold on to their sense of superiority, this is a challenge: not being able to reclaim their sense of identity as superior white people. They don’t like it when Black people are successful or they have to compete with Black people. These issues are playing out inboth our countries, and they have to do with what did not happen. In South Africa and even in your country this issue of equality, of equity, has not been adequately addressed. And this problem of white people not being able to embrace this new phase of social development is yielding negative results. So they are drawing on what their white identity knows best how to do, which is to reclaim their sense of superiority.

How might we address that problem? I think that we will never eradicate racism. This is something that we have to say: “We will never eradicate racism.” A white person who’s not doing well in relation to Black people who are moving forward and becoming visible and becoming successful — there is a whole group of white people who can’t deal with it. When whiteness is challenged by Blackness, it throws their whole sense of who they are off. Every generation, there are these kinds of white people. Unless something interrupts this kind of thinking, they grow up with these attitudes. Knowing the intransigence of this problem of racism should wake us up to the fact that we’ve got to find ways to deal with it, even if every generation has got to find new ways.

Along those lines, could you imagine any sort of healing or reconciliation without a formal process like the T.R.C.? I think it absolutely requires a formal process. Those processes are critical. It’s visible. It’s public. There is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. That is an important starting point. However, the problem of replicating the South African type of truth commission is if it ends with that event; if it becomes a singular event rather than a way of life in terms of how we engage with one another and how you address the fact that people were excluded from opportunities and are inheriting the consequences of that exclusion. That is part of what has to be reckoned with.

Eugene de Kock was granted parole 8 a few years ago. I know that in South Africa, some people believe he never reckoned sincerely with what he had done but was just saying what he had to say to the T.R.C. in order to increase the odds that he would get out of prison someday. Do you harbor any of that skepticism? There is always that possibility that human beings who are in situations like Eugene de Kock are playacting. And he was naming names; there was a sense of vengeance on his part. A sense of, I can’t be alone. I must name others. But there was also a sense of an awakening of conscience. And when people are remorseful, it’s important for them that someone embraces their remorse. Because if you’ve gone to the depths of depravity, like Eugene de Kock, coming up to join the human community is challenging because you have to face what you did. That’s remorse, and it’s the support that you receive from others that allows you to identify with humanity. But if you don’t have that support, you are thrown back into a cage of loneliness with those bodies and blood and the destruction that you brought into this world. De Kock has had that fall, and when you are rejected by your community — for whom the deeds were committed — the consequence is not being able to connect to any sense of yourself as a human being now that you’re out of prison. That misfortune has befallen Eugene de Kock. He can’t reconcile with that darkness.

Does someone like him deserve to? People like him, if they genuinely seek to rejoin the world of moral humanity, we should not close them off. If we quarantine them — if we say they are monsters — we let them off the hook. If we say instead, “We recognize the possibility of you rejoining us,” we are challenging them to reflect on their deeds as fellow human beings. In a way that’s a kind of rarefied revenge on our part: They have to look at what they did. We want them to look — and we also want to hold them to it — because the looking is what is so painful. They’ve got to look into the abyss. Because if you don’t face that truth, the rest is all superficial.


  1. The white-nationalist party that instituted apartheid in 1948. It renamed itself the New Nationalist Party in 1997 and finally was dissolved in 2005.
  2. F. W. de Klerk, president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994, who negotiated with Nelson Mandela to end apartheid and extend the vote to Black South Africans. Mandela, with whom he was awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, succeeded de Klerk as president.
  3. A farm outside Pretoria, South Africa, which functioned as the headquarters of the South African Police unit that worked as a de facto torture and political assassination squad.
  4. The African National Congress, which has won every national election since the dissolution of apartheid.
  5. The president of South Africa after Mandela declined to pursue a second term in office. Mbeki was in office from 1999 to 2008.
  6. South Africa’s president from 2009 until 2018, when he resigned while facing a vote of no confidence from Parliament. His tenure was roiled by charges of corruption, racketeering and other reported abuses of power.
  7. South Africa’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
  8. At the time of the T.R.C., de Kock was granted amnesty only for crimes he was found to have committed for political reasons. His other crimes led to his serving 20 years in prison. His whereabouts is currently unknown.

Source: The New York Times
Featured Image: Photo illustration by Bráulio Amado, source photo by Eleanor Bentall/Bloomberg, via Getty Images.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.