Praise for, 'A Human Being Died That Night' by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Praise for ‘A Human Being Died That Night’
by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Mariner Books, 2004, ISBN 0-618-44659-1
Some books are much more than pages and print.  Engulfing and disturbingly engaging, they slip into hidden crannies of one’s being, places forgotten, or ignored or more often simply overlooked in the ongoing business of living.  We find ourselves reviewing and revising our own lives in the light of what is presented and in that sense, even though the book may rest on a table for parts of the day, it could be described as un-put-down-able.  A Human Being Died That Night, written by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela was such a journey for me.  Though the author is writing of her experiences, her insights and her struggles as a clinical psychologist working for South Africa’s  ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’, her penetrating and compassionate observations reverberate with relevance for many other countries and situations.

How can we heal communities that have been wounded by gross violence, prejudice and pathological ignorance?  Recognising that we share the same space of being, that we walk on the same earth and breathe the same air; that when we harm another, we harm and diminish ourselves, how can we learn to live well with each other when we share a history of mistrust and violence?  How do we find the courage to meaningfully forgive when we have been harmed, to nourish the core humanity of those who have hurt us, and to do this without condoning the harming?  When will we realise that healing society requires that we rely on our being able to see and appreciate the fragility and frailty and the need to love and be loved that is moving in each and every person.  How do we learn, as Czech writer and humanist, Vaclav Havel once wrote, to ‘live within the truth’?

Gobodo-Madikizela relates some of her personal experiences with preparing, and then bringing together, victims and perpetrators of apartheid era violence.  Much of the book focuses on her long series of interviews with Eugene de Kock who was jailed for life for his part as commanding officer of state sanctioned death squads under apartheid.  In the course of more than 40 hours of  interviews, she found herself responding to de Kock’s confusion, and remorse and gradually awakening conscience, and then having to struggle with her own emotional responses to his responses.  Her story is the eloquent testimony of a person of inspiring integrity and humanity.  It is a story of the deep healing that can come, even under the most unimaginably horrific circumstances.

In the midst of reading this book, I found myself reflecting on the seemingly benign society of present day New Zealand; about the unofficial and largely unconscious apartheid that so structures our lives that most people accept it as a normal state of affairs.  Humans carrying on, largely oblivious to the rest of living nature.  Rich people separate from poor people.   City people separate from country people.  The list hints at something systemic: government apart from people, private sector apart from public sector, and all of these separations being borderlands of conflict and confrontation stomping grounds of mistrust, suspicion and fear.  I found myself thinking of the deceptions and self serving views that allow us to poison our land and water in the name of healing and supporting nature.  I found myself thinking of the divisive ways we live on the earth, our economics, land stewardship and approaches to education, agriculture, science and religion, and our vast investment in industries of war and politics of power.

We need truth and reconciliation commissions all over the world, beginning with our families, our local communities and sanghas.  We have fractured the wholeness of life.  We humans have grown used to a normality of contention and confrontation, a normality that is so separated from the truth of interbeing that this unconscious practice of apartheid has become an ideology that we have come to accept and expect and see as inevitable.  We are all committed to the ideology.  We idealize fighting for good, even when it creates what we euphemistically call collateral damage.  The jails are overflowing.  The rivers and lakes are dying.  Species are denied a place to live by humans who don’t even realize such creatures exist.  Our economy based on extraction and unlimited growth is an impossible fantasy.  The gap between the rich and the poor increases everyday.  Our pharmaceutical industries are helping to poison the world.  Everyone wishes to do the right thing.  One group’s freedom fighter is another group’s terrorist.

A Human Being Died That Night is a heartfelt appeal to our deep intuition of living truth.  Please read it and allow it to inspire or prod or jolt or encourage you into wholesome action.  The people of South Africa, along with many throughout the rest of the world, thought that South Africa was destined for a racial blood bath.  With courage and inspiration, they managed to move, in what at the time was almost an unimaginable direction.  Throughout the world today, the problems of population and ecology and how we humans are living is bringing the whole planet to a similarly volatile place.  In understanding the need for a Truth and Reconciliation process and then having the wisdom, the courage and the determination to carry it through all its ups and downs, a large number of very ordinary yet extraordinary people, graced with the inspiration and inspiring examples of a few like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela have shown us what true human beings are capable of.  Their courage and vision is now rippling round the world.
© Tarchin Hearn, July 6, 2011