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Through her book, which has now been turned into a play, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela asked the question: what could turn a fundamentally moral person into a mass murderer?
It took several meetings and many questions before author Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela agreed to producer Eric Abrahams turning her book A Human Being Died that Night into a stage play.
They met several times, and even after she had already signed the paperwork, Abrahams made sure she was comfortable with the choice of playwright Nicholas Wright to adapt the script and Jonathan Munby to direct.
“For me, the work is very much personal. It’s a scholarly work, but it’s not a detached academic work; my heart is in it,” she said in a telephone interview from Bloemfontein.
Now a senior research professor of trauma, forgiveness and reconciliation at the University of Free State, Gobodo-Madikizela is engaged in researching what inspires empathy and exploring how it develops between people from different sides of political conflict and genocide.
The 2003 book’s title comes from an insight she gained when interviewing (commanding officer of apartheid state-sanctioned death squads) Eugene de Kock in the course of her work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the mid 1990s.
“In his search for both his own personal explanation and to give me the words to describe what happened to him, there was a moment when I was reflecting on what he was telling me about his murderous operations and I thought, ‘someone died that night. It was his humanity that died that night’,” she explained.
Gobodo-Madikizela sees turning her book into a stage play, as well as other large-scale projects (like Phillip Miller’s Rewind) that touch on issues of historical trauma, as ways to stimulate dialogue and restore a connection with the events of the past.
“It’s something we constantly need to keep on having conversations about: what does it mean that we’ve emerged from this kind of past, that we come from different sides of trauma and live together? The dialogue process is so critical.
“We’ve touched hope and now we’re in a phase where sometimes it feels like it’s slipping away. So, to reconnect us to our narrative – our narrative of suffering, yes, but more importantly to restore ourselves… it is important.”
Though she admits that the source material could lend itself to sensationalisation, Gobodo-Madikizela is careful to stress how important it is to her that this does not happen.
“Whoever tells the story must understand the nuance. It is easy to say ‘this person is evil’; to ask ‘why did South Africans forgive this person who was evil?’
“Most of the perpetrators we saw at the TRC, they never got the chance to engage in self-reflection. It’s easy to say ‘it’s the past, it was a war’. But here was a man who faced his past truthfully. He did not just wheel out statements about the past. He delved into his conscience; this truth he silenced in his conscience, and that allowed him to transform that story of evil and enter into a new realm where he can rejoin a community of human beings. When people miss the nuances, I feel very discouraged.”
What she is hoping is that the play delves into De Kock’s journey back to the core of his humanity.
Gobodo-Madikizela had good feedback from friends who saw the first run of the two-hander in London, though she was most touched by the strangers who contacted her after seeing the piece to tell her how pleased they were that it stuck so close to the source material. She will judge for herself when she comes to Cape Town to watch it towards the end of the run.
First, though, she hosted an international research forum into the question of what it means for perpetrators and victims to live together in the aftermath of mass trauma and violence with attendants from Chile, Peru, Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Mozambique, Germany as well as South Africa.
• Travelling from Cape Town, A Human Being Died that Night, starring Noma Dumezweni and Matthew Marsh, is on at The Barney Simon Theatre at The Market Theatre in Joburg from March 19 to April 6 before transferring to London in May for a second run.