South African explores limits of remorse--and forgiveness

February 13, 2003

'Once perpetrators begin to examine their evil, go beyond just feeling guilty about it, and allow themselves to feel true remorse, they're human again--not monsters,' an Anglican South African educator who was a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission told an audience at a seminar on the campus of the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest recently.

'What does it mean when we discover that the incarnation of evil is as frighteningly human as we are?' asked Dr. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, describing the testimony of Eugene de Kock about the 'gruesome and unspeakable' atrocities he had committed while leading a notorious government death squad during the last years of the apartheid regime in South Africa. 'I felt pity when I looked at him. There was utter despair in his face,' she said in her talk, 'Are Some Things Unforgivable--Exploring the Limits of Remorse and Forgiveness.' She has described her experiences in a recently published book, 'A Human Being Died that Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness,' and in appearances on several nationally broadcast talk shows.

The book describes her interviews with de Kock in the late 1990s, in a prison where he was serving two life sentences and an additional 212 years for crimes committed as commander of a brutal prison farm where anti-apartheid activists were taken to be tortured and killed.

The goal of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she said, was to break the cycle of violence and build a cohesive society while restoring dignity and respect to both victims and perpetrators. Victims who appeared before the commission relived their trauma so vividly that it seemed to happen only days before, not years.

De Kock asked to meet privately with the widows of those he had killed. The widows forgave him and 'could begin a journey of mourning where they could retrace the steps and be with their husbands as they died,' Gobod-Madikizela said. She said that the model of the TRC could be used to help settle the horrors of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the massacres in Sierra Leone, but leaders of those countries must be as solidly committed to the process as Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, former president of South Africa's Afrikaner government. She even said that it might be used to thwart the revolving door of the American prison system. 'Placing prisoners back into society would be a lot easier because the method transcends hatred. Prisoners feel cleansed after asking for forgiveness,' she said.

Gobodo-Madikizela was on the seminary campus to participate in a program to help train missionaries for the Episcopal Church. More information on her and her book, as well as the struggle for independence in South Africa, can be found on the web at