Thanks to the ABC ‘All in the Mind’ program for revisiting an interview with Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela about her interview with Eugene de Kock, the head of covert operations units in the security forces of South Africa, during the South
African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Pumla is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town
Pumla’s interview provides an deep insight into the nature of mass evil, and its transformation through forgiveness. Of the commission, Desmond Tutu had said, “We will have looked the beast in the eye. We will have come to terms with our horrendous past and it will no longer keep us hostage.”
On this ‘beast’, Pumla reports, “the apartheid government (used) religion and psychology to integrate religion and psychology as a way of getting to the minds of their supporters. Any group or individuals who were opposed to the states were perceived as the anti-Christ, these were the apartheid leaders placed by God so as to speak.
And at a deeper psychological, even perhaps one might say unconscious level … is a level at which people then split off their ability to understand right from wrong, and abuse from treating people as fellow human beings. This whole idea of splitting within the self so that if you are not for me, then you are other, and if you are other then I can treat you anyway that I want. So you make the other person invisible, you don’t see them as human beings and that happens at a very deeply psychological level — to the extent that people may not even be consciously aware of what they are doing, just their mind splits off: I don’t exist in your eyes, or you don’t exist in my eyes, as a human being.
Eugene de Kock’s role was to train black and white collaborators with the state as death squads. Black and white anti-apartheid activists were targeted by the security forces or the state and word would be out that they needed to be eliminated. He ran an operation on a secret farm that was called Vlakplaas, just outside of Pretoria, fully funded by tax payers’ money. He ran a series of death squads placed all over the country; many, many people were killed. Murders that were engineered to look like so-called terrorist operations when in fact the government had lured activists into a trap and then killed them.
Eugene de Kock asked to meet privately with some of the widows of his victims. From that meeting the widows came out and told me that they had forgiven Eugene de Kock. Now that struck me as something that is impossible; I’ve never, up until then, even as I was involved in the Commission I have never imagined the possibility of forgiveness in the context of these kinds of crimes. One of the women when I tried to understand what she meant by forgiving Eugene de Kock, she said Eugene de Kock gave us so much more than anybody ever has done in terms of information about the killing of our husbands. I want to hold Eugene de Kock by the hand and to show him that there is a possibility to change, I forgive him, unconditionally. And now when they were in the room with Eugene de Kock they were in tears, they were crying, so I asked them what were the tears about and she says I want him to know that our tears were not just for our husbands, they were tears for him as well. And this was just so unbelievable for me and this was the beginning of my work in this field of trauma and forgiveness.
I mean this person was the embodiment of evil, we called him prime evil, that was his nickname in South Africa. He was kind of like the very essence of what evil is about in apartheid. I went to see de Kock for all those reasons and my first meeting with him was really going to be the last meeting, the only meeting. But what happened was I asked Eugene de Kock to describe his encounter with these widows who forgave him. And as I asked that question his face just fell and you could visibly see how distressed he was; he started to shake, to tremble and he took off his glasses and his voice, it was cracking and you could see the voice was breaking.
I reached out and touched his shaking hand, just responding to a human moment someone feeling a sense of pain and my being drawn to respond to touch him with my heart, with my hand — to kind of indicate my sense of empathy or my sense of sympathy. I don’t know, it’s just that human quality that draws us into community with others who are in pain.
In opening myself, making myself vulnerable in so many ways, what I realise is that we are taught to distance ourselves and to despise those we define as evil. To split off the side that carries or bears the possibility of engaging in evil in ourselves so that the other person who commits evil never is brought into the community of moral human beings. And we see them as monsters and these words help us in a way to distance ourselves from them. And that instinct to respond to de Kock in the way that I did is what I’ve come to know as a human tendency. It’s what you are brought up with that will recognise the humanness of another person.
I think it is important for us to recognise the journey people like Eugene de Kock choose to embark on when they at last listen to the voice of conscience. Here is a human hand touching him and it happens to be a black human hand as well, I mean he spent his life targeting black people, and so it threw him off, even that idea of referring to it as my trigger hand, it’s another level of splitting. Here’s something that is important I want to mention, Natasha, and I really think we all so often miss this point, which is that Eugene de Kock may have been an operator conducting these treacherous horrific acts — he was not alone, he was backed by a whole society of voters, and in fact during the years where Eugene de Kock stepped up his operations, where the operations became more horrific, the number of voters who supported apartheid increased. So it was a vote of confidence in the government. De Kock was the most decorated police officer in the entire police force in South Africa because of what he did.”
Tutu is also reported of this process, “It is very humbling, it is very ennobling too. Many times when these things happen I almost always feel like saying to people, we should take off our shoes, we are standing on holy ground.”
Pumla talks to forgiveness. “Forgiveness, true forgiveness is a very specific process. Forgiveness is not an event, they are engaging with the perpetrator who has felt a sense of remorse. They are responding to the sense of remorse. Now I think the essence of forgiveness at the relational level is about transforming the relationship. Once we begin to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation we are urging towards a transformation of those relationships. Now I call it radical forgiveness in opposition to the notion that these acts are unforgiveable.”
The dialogue between the realities of perpetrator and their victim resuscitates a victim that was dehumanised… When perpetrators acknowledge that remembering of the other human being. It touches a core in the victim’s inner world, one that invites their engagement with this terrible man — and that opens the door to forgiveness.
It can be disempowering too when a perpetrator continues to deprive the victim of that sense of acknowledgement, and even saying words of forgiveness, forgiveness can be disempowering.
Encountering Eugene de Kock who represented the worst of apartheid was a huge moment of healing for me, because — these sometimes are symbolic actions, but symbols are so important to put us on a course of transformation in societies. The challenge is how to make it possible for us to go beyond the symbolic, the real transformation of people’s lives, economic justice for example. Now that is the realm of the government, our government in so many ways has made a lot of changes and transformation. In so many ways they have not done enough.