Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a South African psychologist of striking moral intelligence and clarity who served on Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in the aftermath of apartheid's overthrow to try to deflect retaliation and revenge. Eugene de Kock is a white South African who served for many years as the commander of state-sanctioned apartheid death squads. De Kock is serving a 212-year sentence in a Pretoria prison for crimes against humanity.
Beginning in 1997, Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed De Kock for a total of 46 hours. Guards chained the prisoner to a metal stool bolted to the floor of the interrogation room; they gave Gobodo-Madikizela a chair on wheels so that she could roll herself out of range if he were to lunge at her.
But De Kock surprised the psychologist, and she has recorded the complex course of their encounters in A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness (Houghton Mifflin; 193 pages). First, De Kock appealed for permission to meet with the widows of several black policemen--men whose executions he had arranged. De Kock wanted to apologize to them privately. One of the women told Gobodo-Madikizela, to the surprise of both, "I was profoundly touched by him."
The psychologist wondered, naturally, whether De Kock deserved forgiveness. He seemed genuinely remorseful. His work with the death squads had a sort of antiterrorist rationale at the time. But so what? Evil always has an explanation. There is no bromide as fatuous as the thought that to understand everything is to forgive everything. Gobodo-Madikizela knows that forgiveness is less a matter of understanding than of a more profound motion of the heart--a transcendence. The importance is not so much that it absolves the one forgiven as that it cleanses the one who forgives.
The rudimentary transaction of remorse-apology-forgiveness is just the beginning of Gobodo-Madikizela's struggle with the meaning of evil and of De Kock. The black psychologist was so moved by the white man's pain that at one point she reached out and touched his shaking hand. The gesture startled them both. Around such moments, Gobodo-Madikizela has composed a beautiful moral document that is without a whisper of easy grace. --By Lance Morrow