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A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid

A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid - Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela For over forty years (roughly 1948-93) state-sanctioned assassinations, kidnappings, rapes, and other torture were a regular occurrance under the Apartheid regime. For somebody who has not lived under this system, the resulting sufferring and heartache is truly unimaginable. Beginning in the 1990's, the perpetrators of these autrocities have been brought in to answer for their crimes. What did the victims and their relatives do? Did they rip these men limb from limb, to satisfy their desire for revenge? They did not. In fact, the people of South Africa did something extraordinary: they formed the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), a series of tribunals where war criminals answered to their victims or victims' families face to face. Author Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a clinical psychologist who sat on TRC, and who personally interviewed Eugene de Kock- a death squad leader directly responsible for hundreds of murders. In this wonderful book, Gobodo-Madikizela explores issues surrounding the TRC and the moral and psychological dynamics of forgiveness ...both from the victim's and perpetrator's views. I have to admit to a certain degree of disappointment and maybe latent anger when I see criminals and sociopaths forgiven. There is a pinch of moral outrage that a well-deserved punishment will not be soundly and cathartically delivered. In fact, forgiveness often feels like bad-tasting medicine; intellectually I accept that it's probably a good thing, but it is taken with resignation, and perhaps with a bit of resentment. What I tend to overlook, and what Gobodo-Madikizela explains so well that the real benefits of forgiveness are not to the crimials who are forgiven, but to the victims who forgive. The therapeutic benefits of forgiveness are real and significant. It takes a lot of energy to be angry; especially when you're talking about the level of anger that goes with life-transforming sufferring like rape or disfiguring trauma, or loss of loved ones. Victim often walk around for years, exhausting themselves with rage and sorrow, magnifying feelings of helplessness, with no endpoint. It makes life narrow and bleak; the victim defines herself around that one moment in time when she was most powerless. Forgiveness turns all of that around. It gives the victim the power to determine her tormentor's status: forgiven or not. She may bestow or withold the status as she chooses- as only she may choose. This is no panacea for pain and sufferring, but (as told here) those forces become attenuated, and are no longer all-consuming. Bad memories persist, but forgiveness marks the end of a chapter, and the promise of a new beginning. Revenge and retribution, although satisfying in a primative, Old Testiment kind of way, just doesn't work these kinds of wonders. Obviously, the message of forgiveness is not new, but somehow Gobodo-Madikizela's delivery seems fresh and insightful. She's not didactic or heavy-handed. Maybe what's new about this book is that while personal forgiveness is an old and well-established concept, the idea of institutionalized personal forgiveness seems unprescedented. As far as I know, nothing like the TRC has ever existed before. It seems revolutionary- a milestone in the development of our collective humanity. There may be a thousand books you could credibly say this about, but of all the books on my shelves, this one feels unique in its potential to powerfully change the world.