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Q&A Sessions: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela: ‘How do we repair this brokenness?’

Author and academic Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is the research chair in studies in historical trauma and transformation at Stellenbosch University. As a psychologist at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she became an authority on remorse and forgiveness. Her book A Human Being Died That Night is her account of her interviews with the former police colonel, torturer and apartheid assassin Eugene de Kock. She spoke to Nicolene de Wee about the government’s failure to heal a broken country


You studied psychology and got a PhD from the University of Cape Town and an honorary doctorate of theology from the Friedrich Schiller University. Who or what motivated you to study psychology? 

My parents played an important role in my life, mainly because of their work ethics and caring nature. Our home in Langa, Cape Town, was a home to so many people. We were only five siblings, but there were always a lot of children and people in and out of our house. 

My parents ran a general dealer store in Langa in the 1960s and I witnessed what community really meant, because my parents extended themselves to the broader community. My mother was also a nurse and she left the house early in the morning, but we never felt unsafe because of the love we received from neighbours and friends. 

I was a very inquisitive child and my work evolved because I started asking questions from an early age. I listened to the experiences of adults and black South Africans growing up in apartheid and the challenges they faced. 

I started off at university to study medicine because my parents wanted me to be a doctor. But after the first year, I completely lost interest and realised that medicine was not for me. I did however stay interested in mathematics. Eventually, I left the sciences and was drawn to humanities where I ended up studying psychology. 

I was also amazed how people carried themselves with so much dignity during apartheid despite the pain, tragedy and suffering they endured. From an early age, I was especially curious about the complexity of human life and my level of maturity surprised my parents and my teachers.  

As a psychologist at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), you were tasked with eliciting testimony from victims as well as perpetrators. What were some of the challenges you experienced during that time? 

One of the things that opened up a whole field of investigation for me was witnessing the possibility of people changing. Just that possibility of transformation. Many of these people have dealt with extreme trauma or with extreme feelings of shame for what they’ve done, either the perpetrators or those benefiting from the crimes. I witnessed at the TRC the possibility of transforming trauma. I’m not necessarily saying the TRC resolved the trauma, but what I am suggesting is that there was something about the moment of acknowledgement. In other words, people’s pain and suffering were acknowledged. 

How do people heal from the trauma so many years later?

Healing in my view is not a good word and it must also be said that one never heals from trauma. However, one can live side by side with the trauma. It is, however, critical to respond to the needs of the victims of trauma to ensure that you interrupt the effect the trauma will have on their lives. 

The TRC’s reparation’s committee sent recommendations to the government to ensure that the cause and consequences of the suffering are interrupted for the victims. There were myriad recommendations and because of so many unresolved issues and cases, the job remains unfinished. 

We speak about the unfinished story of trauma because unless that story is addressed and the person is able to mourn, that trauma will be passed on from one generation to the next. This is a psychological fact and a very important way of understanding how we end up with this repeated cycle of violence in South Africa. We then need to ask why we are seeing this repeated violence and what was not resolved in the previous generation.

You occupy the position of research chair in studies in historical trauma and transformation at Stellenbosch University. Your research on the TRC, and the fact that so many people were not held accountable, is still continuing. 

Yes. In my work I’m going back to the archive of the TRC and asking the question: “What is it that we missed that blinded us from seeing what the future holds for us?” Remember, we are in that future now and that is the violence that we are witnessing now and over the past few years. 

I start with the testimony of Nomonde Calata  [the wife of Fort Calata, a member of the so-called Cradock Four], who testified at the opening of the TRC and whose husband was murdered so brutally by the apartheid government’s police. 

It’s so easy to speak about the looting and the violence of black people today, but the violence that we have not actually factored into what’s going on is the extreme brutality of the state against black people. Not just the physical violence, but also the violence of racism and the violence of breaking up families. 

Part of the reason we are seeing such an increase in gangs today is because of the stability of families that were broken at the time that happened among black people — black in all their diversity. The current government has not done what they were supposed to do and they had the greatest responsibility. 

It’s important to remember that these problems can be passed on to other future generations if they are not dealt with effectively.

What is your wish for South Africa with regard to reconciliation and healing? 

The word reconciliation still remains important, but it should not be the word that guides us. The word we should be using instead is reparation or the quest for repair. How do we repair this brokenness? The starting point for me is not reconciliation but instead ensuring that we achieve solidarity among all South Africans to achieve social justice. Reconciliation is on the horizon, but the operative term, for now, is solidarity. 

What books are on your nightstand and what do you do to relax? 

There are so many books on my nightstand. I’m currently reading a book by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga titled This Mournable Body. It’s a really powerful book about a black woman fighting patriarchy in Africa. The book is about all of the challenges and complexities that we’ve witnessed in so many African countries. 

I’m a Christian and a very spiritual person, so the richness of spirituality gives me a lot of hope and feeds me. There’s something spiritual and calming about the ocean and the waves and I love taking long walks along the beach. I love cooking and spending time in the kitchen, preferably by myself.

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