I first met Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela in Boston in the late 90s, where she was spending time as a Bunting Fellow.
The psychiatrist and former Truth and Reconciliation Commission member was still digesting her experiences of talking with Eugene “Prime Evil” de Kok, perhaps the most well-known of the notorious Vlakplaas headquarters for the government-supported third force that did incalculable damage during the apartheid era.
De Kok had asked for Pumla and had, during the first of their interviews, started crying as he recounted his remorse about his heinous actions.
Moved, Pumla touched de Kok’s hand to comfort him.
Later in the conversation, he reminded her that she had touched his trigger finger.
The revelation unnerved Pumla, who described this and subsequent meetings with de Kok in A Human Being Died That Night, a book I have blogged about before.
In the book Pumla depicts the process by which de Kok sought, and eventually received, forgiveness from several of his victims’ families. She uses the experience and others to advocate for truth and reconciliation commissions generally as a form of transitioning away from mass violence and toward civil society.
The commission heard the last of its thousands of testimonies in 2006. Pumla and University of Cape Town colleague Chris van der Merwe helped organize a 2006 conference on the 10-year anniversary of that date. The papers presented at that gathering form the basis of Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness, a book that we were assigned for the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma here in Orvieto, Italy.
It is a rich text.
Harvard Law School dean and friend Martha Minow, author of Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, wrote the foreword. The book itself contains 19 chapters that explore topics ranging from the depiction of truth and reconciliation in post-apartheid novels by Afrikaans writers to the intergenerational transmission of trauma to general thoughts about forgiveness to the experience of six perpetrators in seeking it.
Especially for an academic collection, the language in the essays is relatively straightforward and accessible. I enjoyed reading about people who I know like Larry Langer, the pioneering scholar in Holocaust testimony who appears as a foil for Pumla in her chapter about forgiveness and reconciliation. I remember being in a room at Facing History when Langer expressed high levels of skepticism about the commission’s effectiveness because of the lack of justice. She apparently does, too.
The work also contains references to, and discussions of, the controversial Eva Moses Kor, a survivor of Dr. Mengele’s experiments who announced in the earlier part of last decade that she forgave her long-dead perpetrator.
There is language in different places in the work about the value and even necessity of criticizing the commission’s work, and a general consensus about the positive role such bodies can play, even with their faults, emerges from the book. Even if you don’t agree with the conclusion, I hope you consider taking the journey of reading this worthwhile book.