Alexandra Fuller on reconciliation in South Africa

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela's book provides context for Alexandra Fuller's article.

The World Cup has ended, but, hopefully, attention to South Africa has not.

Last night I read an engaging National Geographic story by Alexandra Fuller, author of a memoir about growing up in Zimbabwe that I have not yet read.

Accompanied by photos by the remarkable James Nachtwey, who worked in the country for the magazine during the bloody days before South Africa’s landmark elections in 1994, the story tells about Stefaans Coetzee.  A hate-filled white young man, Coetzee  carries out a bombing that kills people and wounds several others, including Olga Macingwane, one of the story’s other characters.

The killing lands him in prison, where he met a prisoner in his 60s-the notorious Eugene ‘Prime Evil’ de Kock. One of the heads of the notorious Vlakplaas farm, where hundreds of apartheid opponents were tortured and killed, de Kock was serving two life sentences and 212 additional years for the heinous acts he had committed in the service of the government.

When Coetzee met him, though, de Kock’s racial views had changed.  The older man worked tirelessly to change the young Coetzee’s mind about being superior to black people because  of the color of his skin.

Part of the change in de Kock’s thinking may have come about through a series of conversations he had with former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner and friend Pumla Gobod0-Madikizela-an experience she recounts in A Human Being Died That Night.

In the slender book, Gobodo-Madikizela talks about the swirl of emotions that came over after she comforted a crying de Kock, who then reminded her that that had been the hand that had ended so many of her comrades’ lives.  She recounts de Kock’s gradual sharing of being physically abused by his father as a child and release, if not complete surrender, of his racist ideas.

By the book’s end, de Kok had apologized to the mothers of some of his victims, who accepted his repentance. Gobodo-Madikizela uses the exchange as an example of restorative justice’s potential.  The accepted apology did not absolve de Kok from criminal responsibility, and, as mentioned above, he will die in prison.

Coetzee goes through a similar process, and has an as yet uncertain legal future.  Fuller’s story and Pumla’s book both touch of central issues of how damaged societies and people can heal after unspeakable atrocities.

Both texts offer some cause for hope.


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