A Human Being Died That Night | Granta

  • Published: 01/09/2006
  • ISBN: 9781846270536
  • 128x20mm
  • 208 pages

A Human Being Died That Night

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

While working for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed former police colonel Eugene De Cock, who commanded a unit believed to have killed a number of anti-apartheid activists. De Cock was charged with, among other crimes against humanity, six murders and sentenced to 212 years in prison. A Human Being Died That Night is about the complexities of post-apartheid South Africa and sees a white man exploring his psyche with a member of the race he tried to annihilate.

Examining what it really means to forgive in such extreme circumstances leads her to look at the complex power shifts at work between perpetrator and victim, the therapeutic quality of compassion and the need for dialogue rather than just recrimination... It's a heartening, and all too rare, call for understanding.


Gobodo-Madikizela presents De Kock as a man capable of remorse...We are urged to understand him as a man who was certain he was serving a cause and one who, in the wake of the political expediencies occasioned by a new dispensation, was ruthlessly abandoned to the full course of public naming and shaming, trial and punishment...the author's argument: that humanity must consistently lay aside histories of polarity and anger, neglect and bitterness, and single-mindedly struggle for the re-establishment of harmony and unity.


Mahatma Gandhi observed that the weak can never forgive; forgiveness is an attribute of the strong. Based on interviews with Eugene de Kock, the executor of apartheid's most brutal methods of repression, this courageous book interrogates the fraught relationship between perpetrator and victim, and the latter's extraordinary power to forgive. Capturing the contradiction and complexity of forgiveness at its furthest reaches, it explores the disturbing implications of "understanding" those who have committed crimes against humanity, the problem of individual and collective responsibility and the value of remorse in the wake of systematic violence. There are no easy answers, but Gobodo-Madikizela offers a deeply affecting insight into dialogue's potential for forcing offenders to unearth moral sensibilities that have been buried beneath "obedience to orders" or "duty to the nation", and for creating new avenues for broadening our models of justice. Written with remarkable warmth, this book insists that hope is where transformation begins and that empathy is an essential part of the process of reclaiming self-efficacy in a brutal world.

Aimee Shalan, Guardian

The Author

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela was born in Langa Township in Cape Town. As a clinical psychologist, she served with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission between 1996 and 1998.She is now a professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town and lectures internationally on issues of reconciliation and forgiveness.

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