New face of justice: along with many black South Africans, Pumla Godobo-Madikizela thinks Eugene de Kock should be freed. Photo: Bloomberg
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Should the apartheid regime’s “Prime Evil” be released?

Ten years ago psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela wrote a book about the encounters she had with Eugene de Kock, head of apartheid South Africa’s death squad, when in Pretoria prison. She thinks he should be pardoned. 

Two South African men. Both white. Each played a significant role in upholding apartheid. Each intimately involved in killing other human beings in support of white supremacy. One I knew. One I didn’t.

Craig Williamson was a high-ranking officer of the much-feared Bureau of State Security (“Boss”). In 1977, in the guise of an anti-apartheid activist, he led me across the border from South Africa to Botswana when I escaped from house arrest. He then became one of the most successful double agents in history and badly undermined the assassinated Swedish prime minister Olof Palme’s efforts to assist anti-apartheid activity.

In 1980, after Williamson had been unmasked as an apartheid spy, he returned home a hero and went on to even higher office in South Africa as a member of the State President’s Council. He was also the hands-on architect of the killing by parcel bomb of two people I knew. Two heroes of the apartheid struggle. Both white. Both women.

One, a best friend, Jeanette Schoon (and her six-year-old daughter), splattered against the walls of their home in exile in Angola. The other, Ruth First, blown up in Mozambique. There were many others whose blood is on his hands who I didn’t know.

Williamson went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2000 and confessed to his role in these killings but little else, claiming that they were “legitimate acts of war”. He offered no remorse. He offered no information that could ease the pain of those whose loved ones he’d killed. He received a full amnesty and resumed a normal life in South Africa as a security consultant. In his case, the TRC achieved neither truth nor justice for the victims and their families.

The other man is Eugene de Kock, alias “Prime Evil”, who was the head of the apartheid regime’s death squad, which tortured and killed opponents with impunity. In 1996 he was sentenced to 212 years in jail for crimes against humanity. He went before the TRC, said he was truly sorry and offered comprehensive information on his victims to the families, how they died and where they were buried. He was granted amnesty for some crimes but his prison sentence stood. He was set to rot in prison for ever.

The two men are connected. In 1996 de Kock testified that Williamson had been involved in the assassination of Olof Palme. In his testimony, de Kock said that the murder, by a lone gunman who shot Palme in the back of the head, had been the work of Operation Long Reach – a secret apartheid-era programme, set up to harass, silence and gather information about opponents of the South African government abroad.

Ten years ago Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist, wrote a book about the encounters she had with de Kock when, at the personal invitation of Nelson Mandela, she served on the TRC. Their meetings happened in the maximum-security section of Pretoria Central Prison. She is elegant, highly intelligent and black. He a baby-faced white killer. He in orange prison overalls, feet chained. She seated in a chair with wheels so she could scoot out of danger should the need arise. Her subject is the nature and origins of evil, the power forgiveness bestows on the victims and their relatives and the conditions for perpetrators’ readmission to the human community. It serves no former repressive society well to ring-fence evil in a few individuals and absolve the rest. The capacity for evil and good resides in us all.

Gobodo-Madikizela firmly believes that de Kock should be pardoned and allowed back into society. He accepts full responsibility for what he did and has asked forgiveness from his victims’ families. De Kock is the only apartheid police official still imprisoned and his latest application for parole is pending. None of his colleagues or superiors was imprisoned.

I read Gobodo-Madikizela’s book, A Human Being Died That Night, and optioned the rights to produce a play. Shortly afterwards, her 40 hours of taped interviews with de Kock were stolen from her assistant on a Cape Town train while en route to make copies for me. The professor was understandably distraught. I arranged for a reward for their return to be offered through radio announcements and posters at railway stations.

If the tapes had been taken by South African intelligence agents or ex-agents we stood no chance of getting them back. But the reward would be attractive to a petty criminal. Three months later Professor Madikizela received a telephone call. A priest in a black township said a local gangster had some audiotapes. Victory? Kind of. He had only four tapes out of 40.

I commissioned the South African-born Nicholas Wright to write a play based on her book and the remaining tapes. When the production opened at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town in February (it’s now running in London at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until 21 June) the reaction was profound. Most black people who saw it felt de Kock should be released: Archbishop Tutu voiced the same opinion. White viewers were less certain.

The play deals with horrific officially sanctioned apartheid-era murders and the physical and emotional pain of victims and survivors, but it is bathed in the overwhelming humanity and intelligence of the black character, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela.

Eric Abraham was a foreign correspondent in South Africa in the mid-1970s

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s “A Human Being Died That Night” is published by Portobello Books (£3.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.