Profile: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela for Fairlady magazine

I meet Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, the woman Time magazine calls ‘a South African psychologist of striking moral intelligence and clarity’, at the Old Bar and Coffee Shop at Kelvin Grove. I suggested the venue because the prizewinning author and international expert on reconciliation is due to address the Cape Town Press Club over lunch at the club’s Sports Pavilion later that day, following the launch of her latest book, Dare we hope? Facing our past to find a new future.

The irony of us meeting at what was once a bastion of white elitism is not lost on me, and I tell her. The words that flow so easily from her lips set the tone for our hour together. ‘My attitude to this kind of thing is that it is now open and I can enjoy it. I don’t forget the history; part of the healing is actually being able to step in and feel a sense of welcome.’

No stranger to feeling unwelcome, Gobodo-Madikizela grew up in Langa but only experienced the beauty of Cape Town when she visited it, and then relocated to study at UCT, after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.  ‘It was a world I did not belong to, and therefore a world whose beauty I could not experience until much later in life,’ she wrote.

Dare we hope?, a compilation of articles and columns Gobodo-Madikizela has written in the 20 years since the birth of our democracy, reveals the depth and breadth of her career as a clinical psychologist, research professor (currently in trauma, memory and forgiveness, at the University of the Free State), international facilitator and writer. It also explains why we should still hope provides a beacon of hope in these troubled times.

Over the years, she’s studied and written about trauma, memory and reconciliation in relation to some of the worst large-scale human rights violations of our times – the Rwandan genocide, the Nazi Holocaust and the extreme violence of the apartheid era. As coordinator of public hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the Western Cape, she bore witness to heart-breaking accounts of loss by the families of some of the victims of state-sanctioned violence, and had to listen to the gruesome testimony of those who believed their inhumane actions were justified to protect the country from ‘Die Swart Gevaar’.

What steered her on the path her studies have taken? ‘At my private high school in Durban, I was among a group chosen by white women from the Anglican Church, the church of my upbringing, to meet and engage with white girls of a similar age from another school. They were really ahead of their time,’ she recalls. ‘Those few sessions opened my mind. From thinking all white people are evil, there was this really natural connection once we opened ourselves. We spoke about simple things: whether we preferred full panties or bikinis, fashion, difficult parents.’

Many years later, while serving on the TRC, Gobodo-Madikizela again observed the ever-present potential and need for moral dialogue. ‘The capacity for ethical engagement exists in all of us, I think, or at least in most of us. When you open yourself to that possibility, the unexpected emerges. Often, even when we are brought together with the other, there is resistance, like an internal wall we build that kind of comes with who we are.’

She believes that reconciliation requires the breaking down of these internal walls. Fresh from devouring this and her earlier book, A human being died that night, which won the Alan Paton Literary Award, I ask how we forgive someone without wanting or being able to forget the pain they caused us.

‘The two are not contradictory at all,’ she says with the confidence of one who has spent hours considering this apparent conundrum. ‘On the contrary, forgiving is the beginning of your journey.  When the person who caused you harm expresses a sense of remorse, it changes the narrative because it recognises you as a human being. Remember, these people who commit these atrocities, they dehumanise their victims so that they can commit the atrocities. The perpetrators of violent crimes redefine morality for themselves; by viewing their victims as other, undeserving of recognition, they are able to rape, maim, torture and murder them.’

Coming back to the victims’ ability to move on from the trauma, she explains: ‘You don’t push your traumatic memories under the carpet and forget, but you live a different life, because something – the perpetrator’s visible remorse – has shifted the strong feelings of resentment and hate. The pain never goes away – you are a changed individual, but that moment of encounter with the person who says “I am so deeply sorry and feel remorse” opens up a path for you to begin at least to work towards the goals you’ve set for yourself.’ 

The word ‘reflect’ is one we shouldn’t use lightly, she tells me.  ‘It is a very important word.  Away from the crowd who supported them and the ideology that sustained them, the perpetrator is forced to reflect and take individual responsibility for their actions. If they confront the shame and the guilt, they take a step towards feeling remorse. True remorse brings the possibility of reconciliation between victim and perpetrator.’

In her current writing and research, Gobodo-Madikizela is ‘moving away from the word “forgiveness” towards a concept of connecting to the other. True forgiveness involves opening yourself up, changing the way you interact with the world and your memories. When that happens, you begin to appreciate the other as a fellow human being and don’t wish evil on them.’

She credits Mrs Faku, the widow of one of the policemen who died in the Motherwell bombing, with inspiring her study of Eugene de Kock, dubbed ‘Prime Evil’ for his role in the apartheid police’s Vlakplaas death squad. Present at his TRC hearing, and intrigued by how a few minutes alone in his company was a turning point in the suffering of Mrs Faku and the other widows, Gobodo-Madikizela visited him in prison over a three month period and wrote A human being died that night about their interaction.

‘Mrs Faku epitomises this notion of caring for the person who hurt you because you want them to emerge out into a better human being,’ Gobodo-Madikizela tells me. ‘Through de Kock’s sense of guilt and shame, which both allowed and enabled him to recognise the pain he had caused to Mrs Faku (and so many others), she was able to reclaim her humanity. In fact, she and other family members of de Kock’s victims still visit him out of a concern for his welfare.’ 

The time Gobodo-Madikizela spent with de Kock showed her what being human means, and how easy it is to take a wrong step onto the slippery slope and ‘be gone’.  ‘We never know how we would have behaved in that situation,’ she cautions. We talk about the fact that soldiers like de Kock were a product of a government that made white people feel unsafe. He was right in the belly of the beast. ‘Most white boys were sent to the army at 16. At the time I was writing A human being died that night, my son was about that age and I would stop and think that he would have been sent to the “border” and what that would have done to him. I often say it was by the grace of God that I was born black, because I don’t have to worry about the choices that I ought to have made that I did not make.’

She stated publicly that she believes that de Kock should have been granted parole. ‘When people have demonstrated fully that they are willing, wishing and hungry to re-join the realm of moral humanity, how can we deny them that right?’

Moral humanity is the recurring theme linking the diverse collection of Gobodo-Madikizela’s writing in Dare we hope?. From healing the chasm between the perpetrators and victims of apartheid to dilemmas of leadership and morality, she focuses on various aspects of what it is that makes us human.

In the light of so much evidence of the failure of moral humanity in South Africa – from the moral bankruptcy that was the apartheid state to what Gobodo-Madikizela refers to as President’s Zuma’s corruption of the soul of our country, from police brutality under both regimes to the unspeakable acts committed by ordinary South Africans – what gives Gobodo-Madikizela hope for our future? ‘The freedom of speech we enjoy. We can all criticise; it is not like in the apartheid era, when do you dared not speak out.  We have Thuli Madonsela and she does her investigations.  What happens?  She is ignored.  Nonetheless, you say, thank goodness we are not silent about that. If anything, we continue to raise our voices. And it is an irritation, and maybe the irritation is what we can hope for, you know. Let’s hope to irritate them.’

For the sake of our beautiful, but troubled, country, let’s hope Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela never gives up trying to ‘irritate them’ with her trademark eloquence.