Sunday, December 3, 2006

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela: Face to Face With Prime Evil


When she describes her meetings with Eugene de Kock, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela mentions Hannibal Lecter. The obvious difference is that Lecter was a fictional embodiment of our fear of murderous psychopaths, and De Kock – nickname Prime Evil – really did commit ruthless acts of barbarity, as the commander of the Vlakplaas death squad, working covertly for the South African government towards the end of the apartheid era.
De Kock was imprisoned for two life sentences plus 212 years for crimes against humanity, and was chained to the floor when Gobodo-Madikizela first encountered him. She subsequently met him 46 times, and developed an unsettling rapport with him, which is chronicled in her book, A Human Being Died That Night. The book mixes memoir – the chapter about her meetings with de Kock are as taut and sparse as an existential thriller – and the psychology of forgiveness.
The Lecter moment comes right at the start. Working as part of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and encouraged by the example of Pearl Faku and Doreen Mgoduka, (who had met de Kock and forgiven him for the murder of their husbands), Gobodo-Madikizela began by wondering whether forgiveness might be wasted on such a man. As she hears his story, her attitude begins to change, though she initially feels guilty for experiencing any sympathy towards him. She writes that she: “wondered if my heart had actually crossed the moral line from compassion, which allows one to maintain a measure of distance, to actually identifying with de Kock.”
This worry was prompted by a moment during one of their meetings where, in a reflex gesture of reassurance, Gobodo-Madikizela reached out and touched de Kock’s hand. The next time they met, the prisoner seemed excited, and thanked her for “the other day,” telling her that the hand she had touched was his “trigger hand”.
Gobodo-Madikizela wrestles with the implications of this charged moment, deciding that the way he referred to his trigger hand was “an illustration of how fragmented he was – a person broken into bits struggling to achieve some sense of wholeness.”
It may also have been the first time a black person had ever touched him in a spirit of compassion. “His world was a cold world, where eyes of death stared accusingly at him, a world littered with corpses and graves – graves of the unknown dead, dismembered or blown-up bodies. But for all the horrific singularity of his acts, de Kock was a desperate soul seeking to affirm to himself that he was still part of the human universe.”
This empathy was not granted lightly. Gobodo-Madikizela, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town, is as forensic in her dissection of her own feelings as she is with de Kock’s. In the end, she concludes that he was consumed by guilt, and was sincerely remorseful.
“There were real human moments which drew me into community with him, for instance when he said our sons were the same age. I felt a little shaken, that my world was actually the same world as this man. But those moments helped to deepen the understanding about exactly what happens when human beings turn the other way, into becoming what we call monsters. It gave me insight into the dangers of being drawn into these situations. It may be small steps at first, as it was with him: he was fighting in the army, and then he was drawn into fighting a war in the shadows, which meant fighting without rules. It meant anything goes as long as you achieve your goal. The more he was drawn into that, the closer he came to what we like to call a monster.”
Even in his apparent remorse, there were glimpses of the old de Kock. “There were moments when he seemed to be revelling in his power in subtle ways. I would find him in the midst of describing how he worked and I could see that it looked as if he was becoming spirited by describing his role. I struggled with this, and I decided: he is remorseful, but the level of remorse evokes weakness in him, and he doesn’t like that kind of weakness. He has been someone commanding huge power and fear, so he would slip into those moments where he wants his power back, even if that was only in the way he tells the story of his role in these atrocities.”
What makes de Kock’s story interesting is that he was not a disturbed individual with psychopathic tendencies. His upbringing was fairly typical. His father was a staunch Afrikaner nationalist who drank too much, and held strongly anticommunist views. But the father also told the son that if he had been born black, he would have joined the supposedly-communist African National Congress. Gobodo-Madikizela also accepts that the Afrikaner cause had a logic to it, however warped; apartheid was even couched in Christian principles, built around fear of the “Black Danger”. “They thought it was a righteous war, blessed by God.”
In this context, De Kock was not so exceptional, and may even be seen as a scapegoat for the moral bankruptcy of South African society in the apartheid era.
“The apartheid government had many people like Eugene de Kock working in the security forces. But the country was looking for someone to identify as the source. I think it’s a psychological need, after these kinds of atrocities. For people who are even remotely associated with these tragedies – for example, white people who benefited from what Eugene de Kock did, who voted for the apartheid government for all these years – it serves their purpose to identify one person as responsible. Confronting the evil of apartheid, as people who supported apartheid, would threaten their sense of themselves, because they see themselves as moral, even God-fearing members of society.”
Gobodo-Madikizela unpicks the notion of evil, a word which usually acts to distance barbaric acts from the realms of ordinary life. “Eugene de Kock has been called Prime Evil: the embodiment of apartheid and therefore he should be quarantined. I use the word to interrogate this notion of evil. The book is a journey to interrogate the meaning of these crimes that are committed under state authority. With evil deeds that are sanctioned by the state, one has to be careful about judging. We do judge, of course. We know that with hindsight these people like Eugene de Kock could have taken a different path. But could they have done that, given that this was a society that seemed to think it was under attack? Not only that: a state government which created laws that allowed these atrocities to take place. And a society in which the majority of white people voted for the government which perpetuated these actions, and voted for it increasingly in the 1980s and kept it in power, and made it successful.
“When a person like Eugene de Kock believes that they are doing the right thing for their country, for law and order, you can really see the problem of human weakness. Ordinary people were believers in this government. They felt that Eugene de Kock and others were protecting them. I don’t know how I would have behaved if I had been white under apartheid. It’s only by the grace of God that I was born black, that I was on the other side of this oppressive regime, that I did not benefit from apartheid.
“But recognising that it’s only by the grace of god that I was not born white, should allow us to understand the problem of human weakness. We will never know with certainty how we would have behaved. Until we are in a situation where we are forced to make those choices, we don’t have the right to stand on a higher moral level and say we would have behaved differently. We don’t know.”
In the end, Gobodo-Madikizela describes de Kock as a victim of lost ideologies, provoking a sad response as the old soldier describes his feelings: “We fought for nothing … we could have all been alive having a beer. And the politicians? If we could put all politicians in the front lines with their families, and grandparents, and grandchildren – if they are ever in the front line, I don’t think we will ever have a war again.”
A Human Being Died That Night, Portobello Books, £8.99