Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

A Human Being Died That Night

  • This summary of A Human Being Died That Night includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Human Being Died That Night Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Human Being Died That Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela.

A Human Being Died That Night is a 2003 non-fiction book by South African author and researcher Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. The book is a compilation of interviews with the notorious state-sanctioned Apartheid-era mass murderer, Eugene de Kock. Interspersed with the de Kock interviews are testimonies by some of de Kock’s victims, as well as his collaborators. The book won the Alan Paton Award, which is given annually to honor great South African achievements in non-fiction.

The book is subtitled A Story of Forgiveness, but the crimes of de Kock would make anyone question the limits of absolution. As a colonel in the South African Police (SAP) and commanding officer of the C10 counter-insurgency unit, de Kock has admitted to the kidnapping, torture, and murder of hundreds of people during the Apartheid era of state-sanctioned white supremacy. Gobodo-Madikizela’s book attempts to pinpoint the ways in which repressive state policies can spur otherwise moral or ethical individuals to commit shocking atrocities.

As a child, de Kock is described as “quiet” and “not a violent person” by his brother. His father believed strongly in the Afrikaner nationalist movement and indoctrinated his sons in this ideology, meaning they were encouraged to believe that white South Africans of primarily Dutch heritage were superior to South Africans of African or South Asian descent. De Kock quickly rose through the military ranks, eventually becoming an officer. He gained a reputation for both reliability and brutality while running counter-insurgency organizations in various conflicts near the South African border in Rhodesia and Namibia. He joined the newly-created C10 unit and within two years was running it. Under his tenure, the organization became indistinguishable from a death squad, hunting down political opponents to the National Party. The full extent of his crimes came out during testimonies for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created to investigate human rights abuses that occurred during the Apartheid Era.

Gobodo-Madikizela characterizes the crimes of de Kock and others as growing out of a sense of compartmentalization among otherwise moral white Afrikaners:
“De Kock’s experience … is reflective of the whole idea of apartheid, the compartmentalization of South African thinking. There were two South Africas: white and black. Similarly, there was the public world and the private world, the open and the covert. And they were rigidly separate. What happened covertly was fine, so long as it did not come out in the open. The two spheres did not collide. White South African bystanders were able to live with the brutality against blacks because it was being carried out in relative secret, in that ‘other’ world. It was only when the truth came out in the open that some felt they could no longer live with it.”

Indeed, despite the fact that most Afrikaners were aware of the “grim but good” acts of violence perpetrated against black South Africans, it was only when the truth was finally thrust out into the open that de Kock became known by his notorious nickname, “Prime Evil.”

The fact that the state enabled, encouraged, and incentivized this violence does open the door for possible forgiveness, Gobodo-Madikizela writes. But the biggest obstacle to forgiveness has nothing to do with character defects or even the startling severity of the crimes, the author writes. It’s that holding onto anger over the deaths of family members and friends is a way for people to feel connected to them.

The author also discusses the differences in how black South Africans and black Americans view forgiveness of racial abuses. South Africans, she writes, are much more open to it because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission allowed for open and public acknowledgement of these race-based crimes against humanities. Forgiveness can only be given to one who admits and acknowledges his or her crimes. In the United States, however, there has been far less in the way of public reckonings in terms of racial atrocities, from slavery to the Jim Crow era to housing discrimination to current day racial issues like voting rights violations.

In describing the ways in which forgiveness is superior to vengeance, the author writes, “The decision to forgive can paradoxically elevate a victim to a position of strength as the one who holds the key to the perpetrator’s wish. For just at the moment when the perpetrator begins to show remorse, to seek some way to ask forgiveness, the victim becomes the gatekeeper to what the outcast desires—readmission to the human community. And the victim retains that privileged status as long as he or she stays the moral course, refusing to sink to the level of evil that was done to her or him. In this sense, then, forgiveness is a kind of revenge, but revenge enacted at a rarefied level.”

A Human Being Died That Night is a powerful work that proposes ways for countries to move on and heal in the wake of nationwide atrocities.