“He spoke with a heavy Afrikaans accent: ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ I knew the face; I had seen it in the newspapers, and at public hearings during his first appearance before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but this was the closest I had ever been to Eugene de Kock. As he smiled shyly, perhaps politely, rising to greet me, I saw a flicker of boyishness, of uncertainty. At the same time, my mind registered ‘Prime Evil,’ the name that marked him as the surest evidence of all that had happened under apartheid. De Kock had not just given apartheid’s murderous evil a name. He had become that evil. The embodiment of evil stood there politely smiling at me” (A Human Being Died That Night, 6; emphasis in original).
When South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela formally met Eugene de Kock for the first time in late 1997, her thoughts above largely capture the sentiments of black South Africans who had suffered under decades of apartheid rule. As a covert police operative, de Kock was responsible for masterminding countless operations to murder anti-apartheid activists, remaining anonymous even as he “had been at the center of the chaos, the blood, the bodies, and the killing, directing it” (18). Now, Gobodo-Madikizela stood inside the heavy-security “C-Max” section of Pretoria Central Prison, where de Kock was serving a double life sentence for human rights crimes. Yet during a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—the country’s revolutionary justice model designed to provide a voice to both perpetrators and victims of apartheid—two widows whose husbands died during one of de Kock’s bombing operations personally offered their forgiveness to Prime Evil. Gobodo-Madikizela finds this “extraordinary,” and consequently asks the central question of A Human Being Died That Night: “Was evil intrinsic to de Kock, and forgiveness therefore wasted upon him?” (15).
Relying on a series of interviews she conducts with de Kock in C-Max, along with psychological and cultural analysis, Gobodo-Madikizela finds a basis for the possibility of forgiving an extraordinary criminal. Her personal turning point occurs after she briefly touches de Kock’s left hand as a gesture of consolation during one of their discussions. Several weeks later, de Kock requests to speak to her during break in a TRC hearing, and after they greet each other, he confesses “with an expression that seemed to reflect genuine amazement that” she had touched his “trigger hand” (39). She wrestles with the loaded meaning of this comment, but later realized that it represents evidence of de Kock’s remorse as he contemplates his actions. Gobodo-Madikizela demonstrates that he isn’t always completely honest or forthcoming about the particulars of his operations, but she contends that he was clearly “struggling with his past,” trying to make sense of what happened (44). As she writes:
“It gave me a sense of hope that he was in some emotional pain about what he had done. And the grace-filled gestures of forgiveness I had witnessed from people who lived with psychological scars as daily reminders of their trauma gave me even greater hope. In wrestling with my empathy, somehow I found solace in these gestures of forgiveness by victims. They validated my own feelings of empathy toward de Kock” (44-45).
It is also important to remember what Gobodo-Madikizela identifies as the “structural and systemic crimes” of which de Kock took part (61), and that he does not bear sole responsibility for his role in enforcing apartheid. Indeed, as brutal as his actions were, they were merely part of a larger sociopolitical atmosphere that had consistently dehumanized black South African citizens for decades. Even those that should have or could have done more to speak in protest against the status quo often refused to do so. The Afrikaans (or Dutch Reformed) Church was the spiritual home for nearly all apartheid politicians, and church leaders officially condoned the killing of state enemies, with “state enemies” consistently meaning anti-apartheid supporters. This certainly isn’t ground for excusing de Kock’s actions, and though he is (and remains) willing to document the complicity of his colleagues and superiors, he doesn’t exonerate himself. Nevertheless, his evil is, to an extent, an outgrowth of an environment where those in power believed that God was on their side, and “interpreted all religious objections to the war as inconsistent with spiritual conviction” (72).
Bearing these facts in mind, Gobodo-Madikizela argues that forgiving a perpetrator who is guilty of human rights violations is nonetheless difficult, and dependent upon not only an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and remorse, but also the ability of victims to transcend their anger and sadness while continuing to live with the trauma of what has occurred. She makes it clear that black South African citizens are still coping with the atrocities of the apartheid era, and that victims whom remain angry or resentful about losing a friend or loved one aren’t necessarily “ ‘holding on’ ” to anger out of spite, but instead “what seems to be the only connection to the one who is no longer present” (96). For those who do forgive, their action represents both an effort to let go of their anger and being open “toward a new path of healing”; for one of the aforementioned widows, forgiving de Kock allowed her to (in her words) “ ‘mourn properly’ ” for her dead husband as a means of letting him go (97).
On another level, Gobodo-Madikizela writes that forgiveness is about “human connectedness” (127), and Eugene de Kock is no different. It’s certainly difficult enough –at least in my case—to simply not hold grudges about everyday matters; overcoming crimes against humanity can seem altogether impossible. But de Kock is a human being just as we are, and he reminds us that the line between good and evil is a very thin one indeed. To forgive someone like him is to recognize the evil in our own lives, and to embrace the possibility of hope and justice in response.