Study Guide | Theater

A Human Being Died That Night

“No amount of words can undo past wrongs. Nothing can ever reverse injustices committed against others. But an apology pronounced in the context of horrible acts has the potential for transformation.”
— Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela has spent most of her life as a clinical psychiatrist and author wrestling with the concept of forgiveness and its implications. It is an idea that she understands well, given her education and experience and considering her early life as a young black woman coming of age during the most violent excesses of apartheid-era South Africa. Although she says that her childhood was a relatively happy one, her awareness of being a second-class citizen in her own homeland was constantly with her. Her time in high school and university was marked by increasing political consciousness and activism. She trained and then practiced as a clinical psychologist; during this time, she was briefly married and had one child, a son. After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, Pumla worked for a time with human rights activist Martin Luitingh. Her field experience with him inspired her to pursue her PhD in clinical psychology, focusing her research on crowd behavior and mob mentality. In 1994, she was invited by Harvard University, via a yearlong fellowship, to complete her dissertation. This work brought her to Mandela’s attention, and he asked her to join his newly formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It was during her years with the TRC that she became interested in the case of Eugene de Kock, and the interviews she had with him formed the heart of her non-fiction masterpiece A Human Being Died that Night. The book was well received around the world; it won South Africa’s distinguished Alan Paton Award in 2004, and was nominated as Best Book of the Year for 2004 by the National Book Critics Circle in the United States. Pumla finished her graduate work at Harvard, and then returned to South Africa to take a prestigious position as professor of clinical psychology at the University of Cape Town. During her tenure there, she authored or co-authored several other books on the legal and moral implications of forgiveness and restorative justice. In 2012, she left for the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein to become Senior Research Professor for Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation. The next year, Nicholas Wright adapted A Human Being Died that Night as a theater piece, which had premieres in South Africa and London. For more on Pumla’s groundbreaking work on empathy, visit her website at

Nicholas Wright is a British playwright who, like Pumla, was born in Cape Town, South Africa. He studied at the London Academy for Music and Dramatic Arts and became well-known for his work with the Royal Court Theatre through the 1960’s and 1970’s. He has written many successful original plays, including the Olivier Award-winning Vincent in Brixton in 2003. He has adapted such theater classics as Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman and Wedekind’s Lulu, and has adapted many non-theatrical works for the stage, including Pat Barker’s World War I novel Regeneration, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and, of course, A Human Being Died That Night. Wright has worked with most of England’s major theatre companies, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court, the Royal National, and the Hampstead Theatre.