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Moral leadership needs more than easy fictions

I would like to point out some untruthful references to my book, A Human Being Died that Night, in the article by Professor Tinyeko Maluleke Perhaps we are too ready to forgive. I respect any interpretation of my or others’ work, and his right to express it, as long as it is supported by facts. To distort my work, however, using a sexual lens to argue that I am a “hopeless romantic” is, at best, dishonest. At worst, it violates a fundamental code of ethics that applies to both scholarly and journalistic writing: quoting one’s sources accurately.

•?A Human Being Died That Night is not about my “effort to forgive” Eugene de Kock, nor is it a “spirited plea for De Kock to be forgiven”, as Maluleke writes. This interpretation is based on false attribution and misses the complexity of my account.

•?Nowhere in my book do I say De Kock expressed himself “lovingly” during my interviews with him. This is tantamount to fabrication, used to construct a sexualised interpretation.

•?To say De Kock “cried like a baby” when he related his encounter with the widows of his victims is dishonest. It is not based on anything I say in describing a particular moment in my interviews with him.

•?My reflection on touching De Kock’s hand is not about connecting with “his lonesome human heart”. Rather, it is a much more nuanced reflection on an unexpected human moment.

The granting of parole to De Kock is, of course, an occasion for us to revisit these questions about forgiveness and reconciliation. Yet, it seems to me, based on what we know about De Kock’s past as an apartheid hit squad leader, there is a more urgent question to be addressed.

In light of De Kock’s present life as a man who seems to have turned the corner and reflected on his murderous past, how might we see the small steps that lead to the silencing of one’s conscience? The significance of this question is rendered poignantly by Peter Malkin, a former member of the Israeli secret service, in his book Eichmann in My Hands, which is about Malkin’s capture of Adolf Eichmann – the “Prime Evil” of Nazi atrocities – in Buenos Aires.

After capturing Eichmann, Malkin tried unsuccessfully to get him to relate to the human loss he had caused. Eichmann expressed no pangs of conscience and Malkin found little or no trace of humaneness in him. But Malkin was changed by the encounters. He writes: “[It] caused me to reflect on my own actions in ways I never had before. I realised that in the course of my career I had participated in actions that were unjust, perhaps even criminal. Always I had followed my superiors’ orders absolutely, most of the time for what seemed noble reasons … yet also because it was also a matter of habit. I would never be that easy on myself again, or find excuses to deny the hard evidence of my eyes, and ears, and heart. For the fact is as simple as it is inescapable: if the conscience stops functioning, even occasionally, one is in mortal danger of losing oneself.”

The question to ask at this stage of our democracy is not whether the violent and traumatic past, and those who had a hand in it, should be forgiven. So much of the historical trauma in our country is irreparable: people are still wounded, they are still hurting.

The question to ask is how to create conditions that make it possible for people to live in the same country – and sometimes as neighbours – with those responsible for their hurt and pain. Accountability for this past does not lie only with those who embody the “trigger hand” of the mass violence, but also those who created the policies that made the violence possible and those who benefited from it.

The project of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, despite all its faults, was to help us face the past and engage with it in a way that could inspire a sense of solidarity among South Africans and a spirit of “never again”. That spirit should point us towards an ethics of care and responsibility for the other at a time when restoring dignity to the majority of South Africans who still live in squalor seems to be off the agenda, replaced by self-interest and a desire for a flashy lifestyle among some elected politicians.

We should continue to engage in public dialogue about the difficult questions that affect our country, which 21 years ago had such a great vision of freedom and transformation of the lives of all South Africans. We should continue to engage especially with the crisis of moral leadership – the crisis, in other words, of muted conscience.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a senior research professor at the University of the Free State

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Pumla Gobodo
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is the Research Chair in Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She graduated from Fort Hare University with a bachelor's degree and an Honours degree in psychology.

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