/ 15 January 2010

Towards an anatomy of violence

Some names have become synonymous with torture, murder and other crimes against humanity in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Belgian King Leopold II and the colonial genocide in the Congo, Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust in Nazi Europe, Pol Pot and the Cambodian ‘killing fields”, Slobodan Milosevic and his campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo, Charles Taylor and the massacres of Sierra Leone — all conjure up images of the most unimaginable state-orchestrated crimes.

They were men of power, architects of destructive regimes that they led and sustained with the help of their lieutenants.

Eugene de Kock was a ‘lieutenant” of the apartheid regime’s destructive policies. His name has become nearly synonymous with the apartheid regime’s massive scale of state repression — the years of terror against those who were fighting for freedom (‘enemies of the state”) and the extraordinary brutality of the apartheid government’s covert counterinsurgency operations.

For nearly 15 years, De Kock has been serving multiple sentences in Pretoria Central Prison for crimes he committed as the head of the apartheid government’s security apparatus for covert operations at Vlakplaas, where he got the nickname ‘Prime Evil”. The label has stuck and with it the perception of De Kock in our collective consciousness as the embodiment of all that is evil about our country’s past.

De Kock’s name has re-entered the public arena with rumours of his possible release by presidential pardon, evoking predictable images of ‘the evil one” ingrained in our collective memory and of the deeds committed by the man who has to carry the burden of uncomfortable truths about our past.

I interviewed De Kock for several hours over three months in 1997 following his first appearance at a public hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), when family members of victims killed during Vlakplaas operations met him for the first time. The main inspiration for the interviews was a desire to integrate several themes I was interested in at the time — themes that continue to exercise my mind.

To my knowledge, the expressions of apology, remorse and forgiveness witnessed at the TRC (though very few) were unprecedented in the history of atrocities. Until the TRC, experts had argued that the language of apology, forgiveness and reconciliation is beyond the purview of acts of the kind reported at TRC public hearings. However, the experts were proved wrong.

I was interested in understanding the significance — for individual victims and for our post-apartheid society — of public acknowledgement of, and accountability for, past violations and suffering, what the phenomena of remorse and forgiveness mean, and how they emerge in encounters between family members who have lost irreparably on the one hand, and perpetrators responsible for the loss on the other.

One other factor shaped my interest in these themes. Before I joined the TRC, I had spent many hours interviewing perpetrators of ‘necklace” murders in Mlungisi township in Queenstown for my doctoral thesis. The hours I spent with the young men and women who were involved in ‘necklace” murders and with members of the Mlungisi community who witnessed these gruesome murders convinced me that the label ‘evil” fails to capture the complexity of social and political dynamics at play when ordinary people are induced to commit, or tacitly support, murderous violence.

Simply to label as ‘evil” actions that dehumanise, torture or kill other human beings in the context of collective violence and state orchestrated abuse tends to stifle efforts to understand the roots of past hatred and violence, and may silence debate on the continuing legacy of the past in the present. Thus the desire to understand the anatomy of violence and how ordinary people are transformed into perpetrators of horrific acts was the impetus for my interviews with De Kock.

Too ‘evil’ for release?
A question that most people have asked concerning De Kock is whether he deserves to be released. Those who oppose the idea of his release say that he is too tainted with the blood of victims, too ‘evil” to be allowed to rejoin the world of moral humanity. Yet, how ‘innocent”, how ‘pure” is our society of free men and women? It is not very long ago that we witnessed our young white men being sent to fight the apartheid government’s war against freedom fighters across our borders.

De Kock was introduced to the badge of ‘evil” he has to wear through the same system of army conscription at the tender age of 16.

Where are these men who fought the same battles as De Kock in Rhodesia, Namibia and Mozambique, what did they do in the service of apartheid, and what painful and gruesome secrets do they harbour? Have we forgotten the times when we faced the cruel irony of watching or reading about black vigilante groups and young white soldiers killing black people in the townships in the name of rooting out communism?

My point is not to drag us to the past, but rather to confront the reality that there are many South Africans who are implicated — directly or indirectly — in the deeds that De Kock committed. Very few people raised their voices to stop the state-orchestrated violence against the oppressed and disenfranchised people of South Africa. ‘Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth,” the slain United States civil rights leader Martin Luther King reminds us that ‘men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war.”

Additionally, collective violence and violence committed by armies and state security police are not the result of the actions of sadists and deranged psychopaths — far from it. There is no doubt that in times of political conflict, some perpetrators may be psychopaths.

Let us consider, however, that numerous social psychology studies have shown that most ordinary human beings can be initiated into evil by persuasive messages, for example messages of ‘die swart gevaar” (black danger), or by compelling force of circumstances that lead them to believe that they are involved in a moral course.

Crucial role
South Africa decided to approach the road to transformation by attempting to understand the causes of so much violence and hatred in our country, and by ­inviting perpetrators and bystanders to acknowledge the pain suffered by victims of all racial groups.

Without much exaggeration, De Kock’s role at the TRC was crucial, and at times pivotal in terms of identifying some key actors in the brutality of the past.

My comments here are in no way a campaign to diminish De Kock’s crimes or to undermine the legacy of the traumatic loss caused by his actions. I believe, however, that keeping De Kock behind bars would encourage ‘the great forgetting” — to paraphrase Adam Rothschild’s description of the forgotten horrors of colonial Europe.

Releasing De Kock would open up the possibility of a movement towards a new politics of remembrance, one that would help invigorate dialogue about the kind of future we want and the future of young South Africans. De Kock would remind us of how easy it is to cultivate hate, and that the repetition of destructive messages from people in positions of power can no longer be entertained as just metaphors.

Any act of pardon should take seriously the issue of whether perpetrators of gross human rights abuses have faced their past and reflected on the moral implications of their actions. The challenge, I think, is how to define morally reasonable grounds on which to grant perpetrators mercy and allow them to re-enter society. These should include evidence of remorseful regret and a commitment to efforts aimed at ensuring that South Africans never fight one another again in a war.

People who fail to see the senselessness of the bloodshed of the apartheid regime, who have not faced their guilt and learned to grieve for the violent loss of so many innocent lives, should be watched closely. Conservative Party member Clive Derby-Lewis, for example, who is serving a life term with Polish right-winger Janusz Walus for the murder of the former South African Communist Party leader, Chris Hani, made his attitude clear before the TRC: ‘How can I apologise for an act of war? War is war.”


Mercy should be granted cautiously. Our society should consider embracing those who, like De Kock, could make an important contribution to the historical consciousness of South Africa’s past and ensure that the history of what happened to victims is not repressed.

Facing the past — acknowledgement of past wrongs by perpetrators, bystanders and beneficiaries alike — is the touchstone of reconciliation.
Reconciliation has become a dirty word, and some people see it as a masquerade for impunity. The value of reconciliation politics, however, is that it shifts from an exclusive focus on prosecutions to allow the emergence of a profoundly new politics of engagement with the past, not in order to rekindle old hatreds, but rather to learn from it.

Samantha Power, winner of the Pulitzer for her book, A Problem from Hell, suggests that the adage ‘never again!” should be changed to ‘again and again”. I think that ‘never again” has a chance of becoming a reality in our country if we face the fact that ‘Prime Evil” is not only on De Kock’s face, but has the potential to be written on yours and mine, too.

Eugene de Kock’s name may be synonymous with past horrors of the apartheid regime; however, the men of real power — the architects of apartheid destruction — continue to live in our midst, and some died living among us. Moreover, most of them preferred the lie that there was nothing wrong with the system of apartheid to facing the immeasurable destruction that apartheid has caused in the lives of countless South Africans, black and white.

  • Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town and the author of the critically acclaimed book, A Human Being Died That Night. She is also co-author of Narrating our Healing, and co-editor of Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness and Critical Psychology in Africa