Perhaps we are too ready to forgive

There is so much to learn from Eugene de Kock. Such as killing – various efficient methods of killing human beings and, sometimes, dogs.

If the Uzi jams or the target attempts to escape in spite of the handcuffs, De Kock knows how to hit the target on the head with a spade. Had he survived, the late Japie Maponya, who was not even the person they were looking for, would testify to this.

Other killing methods included the use of bare hands, poisoning, parcel bombs and faulty grenades. Despite his alleged love for children and his supposed reluctance to eliminate women, De Kock and his buddies wiped out the entire family of Sam and Hajira Chand in Botswana, including their two deaf sons, the watchman and the family dog. Of himself and his manne, De Kock used to boast: “Killing is our business and business is good.”

He could also teach us a lot about digging a shallow grave and destroying evidence, especially if such evidence is in the form of a corpse.

But would this set of lessons from De Kock be helpful? Not much. Except as an illustration of intense hatred, an unfathomable sickness of mind and the moral lows to which the apartheid protectors sank in their utter disdain for human lives, especially black lives.

Yet this is in fact De Kock’s most significant endowment to South Africa and to humanity at large. In spite of the gallant efforts of the likes of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, I do not think we have a clue what to do with De Kock’s in-your-face bequest of torture and murder.

Should we forget the De Kock legacy of killing? If so, what constructive methods of forgetting ought we employ? There are many ways of forgetting. There’s a form of forgetting in terms of which victims are expected and at times commanded to “get over it”. In any case, as the victims “get over it”, supposedly, what reciprocal action should the perpetrator engage in? Since he has “done time” for his crimes, should he also just “get over it” and be left alone to move ahead with his life?

After all, there have been reports of women who have offered him their hand in marriage after his ex-wife remarried. There is a form of forgetting that Germany has employed, not perfectly, with regard to the Holocaust and the key events, people and places connected to it. This kind of forgetting consists of ongoing actions and public memorials designed to cultivate and demonstrate a refusal to forget.

Shall we seek to understand the De Kock heritage of death and destruction? To the extent that it can ever be understood, I think some have bravely tried to do so. I think of veteran journalist Jeremy Gordin’s sympathetic interviews and subsequent, empathetic book A Long Night’s Damage.

Though Jacques Pauw’s initial TV exposé and book Into the Heart of Darkness was scathing about De Kock, Pauw’s later treatment of the man in his Dances with Devils makes a spirited effort to understand De Kock.

But, of the people who tried to understand De Kock, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela takes the prize for the sheer gallantry of her search for De Kock’s humanity and her effort to forgive him. Her book, A Human Being Died That Night, is based on a series of interviews she conducted in jail with the convicted criminal. Not even Tutu’s No Future without Forgiveness comes close to her effort to humanise De Kock.

As Tutu and Nelson Mandela have pointed out again and again, victims need to forgive the perpetrator more than the perpetrator recognises the need to be forgiven. Who can forget Mandela’s words when he said: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison”?

Nevertheless, we must ask ourselves whether we, as a people and as humanity, have the authority and, most importantly, the capacity to forgive the likes of De Kock. Forgiveness is a difficult and noble act, one that must neither be scoffed at nor unduly discouraged.

“The families must be consulted” has been a constant refrain in discussions relating to the possible parole of De Kock and Clive Derby-Lewis, which De Kock has now received. Maybe that’s what the law provides for. But is it responsible for a nation to outsource a national dilemma pertaining to a murderous bequest to all of us only to the surviving next of kin?

An opportunity to forgive De Kock was recently arranged for Marcia Khoza, daughter of Portia Shabangu, a woman murdered along with her comrades Thabo Louis Mohale and Derek Mashobane in Manzini, Swaziland, when Khoza was only five years old. On the occasion De Kock explained to her that her mum did not die in the first assault so, while she was gasping for air (and probably pleading for her life) he shot her twice in the head to finish her off. She needed the truth, and he gave it to her. She needed to pronounce forgiveness and De Kock gave her the opportunity to do so. But, beyond Khoza’s need to forgive, would she know any better than you and me as to what it means and takes to really forgive him?

Gobodo-Madikizela makes the most spirited plea for De Kock to be forgiven. Two occasions seem to have moved her deeply. The first was the day he cried like a baby while talking about how he made widows of Pearl Faku and Doreen Mgoduka in the Motherwell bombing.

The second occasion was the day De Kock “lovingly” said: “Pumla … have I ever killed any of your friends or family?”

On the first occasion she comforted De Kock by touching his hand – a hand he later identified to her as his trigger hand. On this day, Gobodo-Madikizela believed that she had also touched the human core buried deep in him. On the second occasion, she almost hugged or touched him again but felt awkward to do so in the presence of the black guards. On both occasions she felt she had connected with his lonesome human heart. During some of her visits, De Kock seemed to flirt openly with her, apologising on one occasion that “quite a decent guy” like him should not “appear unshaven before a lady” like her.

Khoza may have become a victim – second time around – a victim of an amoral killer and of her need to forgive, to forgive herself for a lifelong feeling of forsakenness, for a lifetime of anger including anger at her mother for dying seemingly so easily, and so shamefully (otherwise she would not have died mysteriously, right?) and so early in her life.

Gobodo-Madikizela is a more complex victim – a victim of hope and a hopeless romantic. She searches hard for that human core in De Kock and probes deeply for his beating heart. She seems surprised that she found both and is so thrilled she wants the world to celebrate with her. But De Kock was always human and there was always a heart inside his ribcage. The problem is that his humanity and his heart were never meant for the likes of her.

“It was my trigger hand you touched,” he said. He didn’t say: “I felt touched by you.” This is significant. If there is any truth in her suggestion that De Kock was seeking to disconnect psychologically from that trigger hand then, as far as he was concerned, she probably did not touch his body. Gobodo-Madikizela must realise, for De Kock, hands shaped and coloured like hers are probably for dismembering; bodies like hers are meant for blowing up; foreheads like hers were made for bullets.

Let me return to the questions. Do Khoza, Gobodo-Madikizela, you and I have the capacity to understand and forgive De Kock? For myself, for now, I do not have that capacity. That does not mean I do not wish to understand and to forgive. It just means that I am not there yet.

If we can forgive De Kock, let us forgive those who cannot forgive him too. If we have forgiven De Kock, where is our anger against foreigners and our disdain for the poor coming from? If we have forgiven, why are we killing and raping so much? If we are forgiving, why are we spending so much time seeking to understand and hug De Kock and not the relatives of his victims?

I think we speak too quickly and too glibly of forgiveness – selective forgiveness, at that.

Professor Tinyiko Maluleke teaches at the University of Pretoria

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