/ 9 June 2024

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela scoops Templeton Prize

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Remarkable: Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s work in reparation and forgiveness as part of the process of healing following violence and trauma has been internationally recognised. Photo: Stefan Els/Stellenbosch University

Psychologist and academic Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela has scooped the prestigious 2024 Templeton Prize for her life’s work that culminated in the creation of 

a globally recognised model for social healing in the aftermath of conflict.

Gobodo-Madikizela’s insights into the mechanisms of trauma and forgiveness in post-apartheid South Africa led to her creation of the model, which she calls “the reparative quest”.

The Templeton Prize is one of the world’s largest annual individual awards and honours people whose achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it. 

Gobodo-Madikizela was an influential member of the Human Rights Violations Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She is the South African National Research Foundation’s chair in Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma and the director of the Centre for the Study of the Afterlife of Violence and the Reparative Quest at Stellenbosch University.

Her award-winning 2003 book, A Human Being Died That Night, recounts her conversations with the former commander of state-sanctioned death squads, Eugene de Kock, and argues for the possibility of remorse, accountability and forgiveness. 

The book has been published in multiple translations and was the winner of the Alan Paton Award and the Christopher Award. It was also adapted into a stage play that premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in London in 2013.

Her career as a scholar and a public figure has been marked by her effort to repair ruptures created by past violence and to build a path toward healing and restoration. 

In her books and international lectures, she focuses on the power of sympathy to evoke a deep feeling of humanity toward victims and perpetrators of traumatic experiences. 

Gobodo-Madikizela was born in 1955 in Langa, Cape Town. 

Growing up under apartheid, she bore witness to the harm of segregation, discrimination, racism and state brutality. She remembered hiding as the army’s tanks drove through her neighbourhood. 

Only when returning to the Cape Town area in freedom later in life could she appreciate the natural beauty of her home.

Gobodo-Madikizela said that until the end of apartheid, “I never actually thought of Cape Town as my city,” adding that now many South Africans once excluded from society can appreciate the country’s beauty as an “act of reclamation”.

She said the Templeton Prize opens up further opportunities for her to work with the next generation of researchers in the field.

“Through the many encounters I had in my work when I served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I learned that ordinary people, under certain circumstances, are capable of far greater evil than we could have imagined,” Gobodo-Madikizela said. “But so are we capable of far greater virtue than we might have thought. 

“My research is based on this possibility of human transformation, on probing deeper to understand the conditions necessary to restore the values of what it means to be human — to want to preserve the dignity and life of the other.

“This is the essence of an accountable ubuntu, a word from my language that is a foundational moral force that reaffirms our shared humanity. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for this prize. 

“The great opportunity it opens for me to work with the next generation of future leaders who will pursue research on these urgent questions is a rare gift.”

The John Templeton Foundation president, Heather Templeton Dill, said Gobodo-Madikizela has “a remarkable grasp of the personal and social dynamics that allow for healing in societies wounded by violence”. 

“As a psychologist, scholar and commentator, she has served as a guiding light within South Africa as it charts a course beyond apartheid, facilitating dialogue to help people overcome individual and collective trauma. Her work underscores the importance in contemporary life of cultivating the spiritual values of hope, compassion, and reconciliation,” Dill said.

“Her achievements mark her as a leading figure in understanding and confronting the deeply rooted psychological scars borne by those who experienced unimaginable loss.” 

Gobodo-Madikizela joins 53 former prize recipients that include Saint Teresa of Kolkata (the inaugural award in 1973), the Dalai Lama, nurse and midwife Edna Adan Ismail, theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek and ethologist and conservationist Jane Goodall.

Other social scientists who have won the prize include Michael Bourdeaux, founder of the Keston Institute, and Michael Novak, philosopher and diplomat. 

She is the third South African to win the award, preceded by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in 2013 and physicist George Ellis in 2004.

Gobodo-Madikizela has a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Rhodes University, which focused on the effects of apartheid on the psychological well-being of black South Africans. 

Her early research laid the foundation for her lifelong commitment to exploring the emotional and psychological toll of apartheid on both victims and perpetrators.