Interviews with a vampire: a black South African psychologist explores the mind of one of the apartheid regime’s most notorious enforcers.
Is it possible to forgive a monster, to reabsorb a Milosevic, a Hitler, a Stalin into society? Though she works in a reference to Hannibal Lecter early on, Gobodo-Madikizela is judicious in her characterizations of the now imprisoned policeman Eugene de Kock, “the man whom many in the country [of South Africa] considered the most brutal of apartheid’s covert police operatives”—and who has long and deservedly borne the nickname “Prime Evil.” As a psychologist who spent many sessions talking with him about his crimes, she finds reason to think him psychotic, but also brutalized by the very regime in whose service he had done so much of that evil. As a citizen, she finds his existence and methods to be part and parcel of a regime that for generations had committed itself to upholding white supremacy at whatever cost—and that publicly disavowed the excesses perpetrated in its name. (That regime was also masterful at altering the historical report card, she writes; the police report on a massacre of some 500 black South African protestors in 1976 acknowledges only one victim.) Hung out to dry but still loyal to his masters, de Kock reveals the process of denial attendant in being a criminal with a badge, for, Gobodo-Madikizela writes, “like sin, crime that is a gross violation of human rights almost always hides its true nature from its own self.” Gobodo-Madikizela’s purpose in this gracefully written account is less to condemn than to document, understand, and ultimately forgive; without a hint of sanctimony, she argues that a victim who puts revenge aside can gain a more satisfying measure of power by becoming “the gatekeeper to what the outcast desires—readmission into the human community.” Though the process may not yield complete reconciliation, she asserts, finding and exercising that power is both therapeutic and necessary for building democracy.
There’s much forgiving to be done in this world, and this primer in compassion makes a fine start.