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Alumni Book Review: Forgiveness trumps prime evil

By Renee Storteboom

How does a nation find justice and recover from unthinkable horror? Nazis were tried at Nuremburg, other nations have declared “national forgetting,” and Zimbabwe harbors the man who created the Red Terror in Ethiopia. Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia continue to bring the indescribable horrors of ethnic cleansing to light and hope that sunshine will disinfect the violent viruses from their societies.

South Africa, after decades of suppression under the Apartheid system, folded in an element of forgiveness, acknowledging widespread guilt, and offering truth over revenge. Was it a perfect solution? No. Few human efforts at reconciliation perfectly clear the slate. Did it reveal the many characteristics a human being carries: black, white, and shades of gray? Yes—not the black and white skin tones that determined life for South Africans, but evidence and actions brought out by their ideologies and their place in a complex South African society.

<i>A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness</i>
<br />By Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness
By Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a black South African and the only psychologist in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—an experimental effort at national healing after decades of hate, violence, counter-violence, and terror.

It takes an astonishing career to be known as “Prime Evil.” But one man managed to earn that title in his career as a primary officer of Apartheid’s shadowy security and counter-terrorism arm. He was a phantom leader of Apartheid’s terror. Finally he became known by his own name, Eugene de Kock. Gobodo-Madikizela manages to sit in a room with him and to describe the humanity she found in him to readers. He remains a murderer, but he is human.

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” he says while manacled to a wall on their first meeting in a maximum security prison in Pretoria. He is sentenced to 212 years of confinement, convicted of crimes against humanity.

De Kock enforced a system of separation and oppression developed by Afrikaners—our cousins. They used elements of and distortions of the Calvinist doctrine our churches and schools and families use to navigate the path we walk through this world.

Gobodo-Madikizela finds the forgivable corners of dark hearts and the compassionate bursts of broken hearts through her encounters with de Kock, visits with victims and survivors, and from Commission testimony from people such as mothers who looked the killers of their children in the eye and said, “I forgive you. I have no hatred in my heart.” She finds a full spectrum of life after decades of trauma.

How many times do we say “Never again”? On paper, for the sake of history, it’s a numbers game, names and numbers. An account book: who did what to whom and when. But more powerfully, next we can forgive—even without understanding or legitimizing. Forgiveness is more difficult; it takes something super-human. But it provides empowerment for victims and human grace for both victim and convict.

Gobodo-Madikizela gives another possible result for the Biblical forgiveness equation of seventy times seven. It can be called the ‘new math’ for the new South Africa. It is elusive but it is infinite and it is possible. It requires more of the heart and less of the mind to calculate.

Renee Storteboom "walked" with the class of ‘94, but says her diploma is dated January ‘95. We consider her a part of the class of 1994. Renee is a writer/editor and a program manager working with humanitarian organizations and think tanks in Africa and Washington, D.C.