Wednesday, January 06, 2010

"I forgave apartheid's chief killer"

This story is six years old but has become topical again. Interesting perspective.



Nicknamed "Prime Evil", Eugene de Kock has the blood of countless black South Africans on his hands. Now a psychologist from the townships says he should be pardoned. She tells Rory Carroll why.

When the apartheid assassin known as "Prime Evil" was sentenced to 212 years for crimes against humanity, the black South Africans outside Pretoria's supreme court cheered and danced. Never again would Eugene de Kock walk the streets. That big blank face with the thick spectacles would stay caged until the day he died. That was 1996, and De Kock is still inside the grey world of C-Max, the maximum security section of Pretoria's central prison, his body in orange overalls, his feet chained to a metal stool bolted to the floor when visitors come.

But in one sense De Kock is out. Out and roaming the mind of South Africa with awkward questions about the nature of evil and forgiveness, courtesy of a black woman who decided to look into the monster's heart and found a human being worthy of a pardon and freedom. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist at the University of Cape Town, has published a remarkable book about her conversations with De Kock.

Titled A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, it has been dubbed by some as "Interviews with a Vampire". In fact it is a nuanced and clinical scrutiny of how and why an apparently ordinary man became murderer-in-chief for a brutal regime.

It dwells on his atrocities - the torture, the ambushes, the executions, the exultation in inflicting suffering - and yet concludes that Prime Evil deserves to be forgiven.

"Yes, if the authorities asked my opinion I would say Eugene de Kock should be pardoned," says Gobodo-Madikizela, sunk in an armchair at her office in Cape Town.

"He has been visited by the widows of some of his victims. He is an example of how dialogue can happen."

Which is worse: Nazis such as Adolf Eichmann who commit evil acts not thinking they are evil, or De Kock committing acts that he knows are evil?

A series of interviews in C-Max totalling 46 hours convinced her that the commanding officer of state-sanctioned death squads was genuinely remorseful about his career and a changed man. A bestseller in the US and South Africa, the book has been widely praised, with South Africa's Nobel laureate for literature, J. M. Coetzee, hailing a "coolly intelligent analysis of how the conscience gets to be numbed".

Afrikaans-language newspapers welcomed the book as a brave contribution to understanding the past and shaping the future. The near-universal plaudits have puzzled the author as her conclusion that De Kock should be freed could be expected to be controversial.

"In a way it worries me that the reaction has been so positive," she says. At book fairs and readings she has been asked why she focuses on the perpetrator rather than the victim, but otherwise she has not been challenged.

That she is black and grew up in a township probably disarmed some critics. At the age of five, she cowered behind her mother's garden hedge while army trucks "like huge monsters" chased people through the township. Just as important is her evident sincerity: she did not set out to empathise with De Kock, it just happened. It also helps that Archbishop Desmond Tutu liked the book, and that reconciliation has been South Africa's leitmotif for the past decade.

Gobodo-Madikizela's first visit to C-Max reads like something from Silence of the Lambs. The warders gave her a chair with wheels and demonstrated how she could whiz backwards if De Kock, replete with Hannibal Lector garb, made a lunge. Instead he stood up, leg-chains clanking, extended his hand, smiled and in a thick Afrikaans accent said: "It's a pleasure to meet you."

De Kock grew up in a conservative Afrikaner family as white minority rule was entering crisis. Besieged by opponents inside and outside the country, the government had the blessing of the Dutch Reformed Church when it hit back.

De Kock led the army's counter-insurgency unit, Koevoet, in Namibia, a dirty war fought in the bush, which left few prisoners. When riots worsened in South Africa he was brought home in the 1980s to head Vlakplaas, a farm where the security services interrogated suspects and refined their killing techniques - letter bombs, booby trapped headphones and vehicles, poison - which claimed the lives of countless civilians and liberation fighters.

It was his own men who nicknamed him Prime Evil. "Bad he was, but mad he wasn't, not at all. He had a sense of drivenness. He was looked up to by the entire country as a fixer, he was the kingpin in the machinery of destruction," says Gobodo-Madikizela.

In 1995, a year after democratic elections brought the African National Congress to power, he went on trial and a horrified public learnt all the gory details. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted him an amnesty for some crimes in return for testimony, but that did not affect the court's prison sentence and De Kock, it was assumed, was gone for good.

Gobodo-Madikizela is an unlikely champion for his liberty. Chic and trim in tweed trousers and an orange blouse and scarf, her accent has the neutrality of years abroad. Born in the impoverished township of Langa, outside Cape Town, she witnessed daily police brutality and discrimination but she managed to get a clinical psychology degree and study in the US.

After serving with Archbishop Tutu on the human rights violations committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she was inspired by victims' stories to write a book about vengeance and forgiveness. Intrigued by De Kock's request to meet and apologise to the widows of some men he murdered, and by the widows' decisions to forgive him, she started visiting C-Max in 1997.

What unfolded in the grey interview room could make a great play, the white man exploring his psyche with a member of a race he tried so hard to oppress. Did he ever kill one of her friends or relatives, he asked, and seemed relieved when she said no.

De Kock broke down when he recalled meeting the widows. "I wish I could do more than (say) I'm sorry. I wish there was a way of bringing their bodies back alive. I wish I could say, 'Here are your husbands'."

The psychologist touched his trembling hand, a reflex that troubled her. "He's got blood all over and for me to be drawn like that . . . it made me question my sense of empathy."

Waking up in bed the following day, she was unable to lift her right forearm as if, she says, her body was grounding it for having engaged in a prohibited act. Friends warned her that De Kock might try to manipulate her, or play mind games, and her fears deepened when De Kock subsequently said the hand she touched was his trigger hand. Did he tell her that to reclaim some of his old power to instil dread?

"I had touched his leprosy, and he seemed to be telling me that, even though I did not realise it at the time, I was from now on infected with the memory of having embraced into my heart the hand that had killed, maimed and blown up lives."

But she decided that the side of De Kock she had touched was the one that had not been allowed to triumph over the side that made him a killer, a glimpse of what might have been. So the interviews continued, fuelled by De Kock's apparent desire to understand and atone for what he had done.

"What struck me was this little boy's frightened face." He was a desperate soul seeking to affirm to himself that he still belonged to the human universe, she said.

De Kock's father, it turned out, drank heavily and abused his mother. As a child he was ridiculed for stuttering, leaving feelings of shame and aggression, which he learnt to relieve through his own violence, says Gobodo-Madikizela, adding that that is only a fragment of the explanation.

If abuse corrupts a hitherto innocent person's psyche and predisposes them to evil, do they deserve sympathy? Or should they be condemned for not exercising free will to suppress evil impulses? Or both? Which is worse, she asks: Nazis such as Adolf Eichmann who commit evil acts not thinking they are evil, or De Kock committing acts that he knows are evil? The latter, she suggests, has a more normal moral compass, albeit one that is ignored.

And what, she asks, of the black mobs who placed burning tyres around people's necks - the sadistic necklace murders? And of the communities that allowed them to do it? Gobodo-Madikizela recalls being caught up with a jubilant crowd in 1990 celebrating the capture of a police captain, a suspected apartheid agent, who was subsequently mutilated and killed.

The line between good and evil is thinner than we think, she says, which is one of the reasons forgiveness is so valuable. Rather than overlooking a wrong, it rises above it and can empower the victim. "Just at the moment the perpetrator begins to show remorse . . . the victim becomes the gatekeeper to what the outcast desires - re-admission into the human community."

Forgiveness can sometimes humiliate the victim, she says, citing Winnie Madikizela-Mandela hugging the mother of a 14-year-old boy she denied killing, but in the right circumstances it eases victims' resentment and pain.

Having pardoned several apartheid-era killers, she believes President Thabo Mbeki should also pardon De Kock. The irony is that Gobodo-Madikizela cannot forgive Mbeki for his foot-dragging on the HIV/Aids pandemic, which kills 600 South Africans daily.

One of the many critics who say the President's controversial views on the causes and treatment of the disease have cost countless lives, she is careful not to compare him with De Kock, but notes that traumas during apartheid and exile left some ANC leaders "psychologically incomplete".

Silence from Mbeki makes it difficult for women to leave partners infected with HIV, says Gobodo-Madikizela, who defied her family's wishes by leaving a husband who had AIDS. Her book is dedicated to a younger sister, Sesi, who did not dare leave her own husband and died from the disease. It is the only time in the interview that Gobodo-Madikizela looks angry. "For a leader to lead young people on this path is unforgivable."

A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, is published in the US and South Africa by Houghton Mifflin.

11 Opinion(s):

Drunkboris said...

"Nicknamed "Prime Evil", Eugene de Kock has the blood of countless black South Africans on his hands."

O pulease, when are the liberals going to acknowledge the fact that the whites never killed as many blacks as they say, the most killings were black on black.
ignorant barbarians

Dachshund said...

Let's invite Eugene de Kock to contribute to this blog. He seems to be more open minded than some of the commentators.

Islandshark said...

He might be more open-minded than individuals continually bashing Afrikaners too.

h said...

@Dachshund

A little bitter now? So, if people don't like what you say and publicly state this, you get a all uppity and post snotty / sarcastic comments? You are proving yourself more and more 'left-wing' with each new comment you post.

Islandshark said...

It's a pity that there aren't more level-headed "previously disadvantaged" individuals like this in SA today.

You can see this woman did not allow her difficult environment to get her down. She made something of herself. She seems very objective and professional.

Dachshund said...

Islandshark: Yes, she certainly does seem a nice person who decided to make lemonade when life offered her lemons.

h: I couldn't give a stuff if people consider me left wing. I detest meanness of spirit. If all people could be given the opportunity to escape poverty and live a meaningful life that could only be good for me. No man is an island.

Anonymous said...

Within the ranks of the FBI there are more killers worse than E de Kock. Every goverment has it's adversaries "removed", so why all the whining. No goverment exceeds the ruthless removal of it's adversaries than the communist and US goverment.

WHITEADDER said...

Eugene de Kock is a monument to the treason of the DeKlerk / National Party gang.
Guys like this did in essence what they were told to do.
The Nat leaders were not touched and still receive state pensions.

How is De Kock worse than the ANC gangsters that are on free and living it up ?

Anonymous said...

I take my hat off to people like De Kock who did a dirty job that nobody else wanted to do, but that needed to be done. SOLDIERS like him upheld the civility in South Africa. Now that there are no more De Kocks, the country is in chaos by the hand of the ruling terrorists.
PW Botha, Pik Botha, Magnus Malan, FW de Klerk, everyone knew what he was doing. They also funded him. Then later proclaimed they knew nothing. Bullshit.

Dachshund said...

I agree with you, WHITEADDER.

medical said...

Please come to Atlanta, Georgia and take your beyond evil, lying, murdering, two faced Archbishop Tutu back to South Africa before people here suddenly decide to "take action" to eliminate him!