Book Review: A Human Being Died That Night

A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts The Legacy Of Apartheid, by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

There is a fundamental problem at the heart of this book, and it is a problem that threatens the legitimacy of the entire approach that most people take to South Africa and related problems, including the contemporary political crisis of the United States. The author seems to presume that she, as a leftist activist who is in support of the ideals of the contemporary South African government, has a moral superiority over the subject of this book, a scapegoat South African white who did the dirty work so that the apartheid state and its people could sleep soundly knowing that they were being defended as ably as possible. She has no moral superiority, though, something which she demonstrates at the beginning of the book when she talks about her own participation in a riot that led to the death of a white man. So for all of her posturing and whining about how she feels it is a bad thing to be empathetic for someone like Eugene de Kock, she is his moral equal, and maybe a moral inferior since she feels herself blessed by being on the right side of history. The fact that she cannot realize this drastically harms the strength of this book in its attempt to engage in soul searching about the legacy of apartheid.

This book is mercifully short at less than 150 pages, which is one of its few virtues. The author begins with a discussion of scenes from apartheid that seek to build an emotional sort of rapport with the reader but in many cases only undercut her own complicity with evil that results from the choice of engaging in violent political activism of the kind that jeopardizes the life and property of her moral superiors on the other side (1). This is followed by her interactions with “Prime Evil,” where she relishes in the imprisonment of a civil servant who had engaged in brutal but useful work and begins obsessing over Hannah Arendt’s bogus views of the banality of evil (2). After this she looks at the trial and discussions of the “trigger hand (3)” and the evolution of evil to consciences that are not entirely darkened, perhaps unlike her own (4). This is followed by a discussion of the language of trauma and a discussion of the youth of de Kock as well as the trauma that he inflicted on others (5). Finally, the author examines the problem of apartheid of the mind, an issue of compartmentalization (6), as well as the claim that the subject has no hatred in his heart (7). After this comes the epilogue as well as an appendix that gives a short and predictably biased history of apartheid, notes, acknowledgements, and an index.

In a profound and fundamental sense, the sort of naval-gazing self-referential discussion that the author undertakes is not really her place. On a basic level, the author seems to be gloating in the turnabout of power that took place in 1994 when Mandela was elected president of South Africa and her attempts at getting to know de Kock come off as her being malicious and attempting to rejoice in her rise and in de Kock’s fall, even as she attempts to blame the white South Africans who have thus far managed to avoid rapine and violence and the dispossession of their property as being to blame for some sort of illusory structural racism. The sort of soul-searching the author wants to do in order to peer into the souls of South Africa’s powerless whites is really the sort of soul-searching that South African whites need to do for themselves, to reflect on the reality that their worth is not dependent on their civil power within South Africa. The author, though, and others of her ilk, need to examine their own souls to recognize the extent to which they are monsters just like the apartheid leaders they abhor, with bloody hands and corrupted hearts and minds, and this the author appears not particularly willing to do.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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