Study Guide | Theater

A Human Being Died That Night

The Story

The play begins at a conference in South Africa where Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is addressing an unseen audience. As we see her slide presentation, featuring photographs of Auschwitz, the massacre in Rwanda, and Abu Ghraib, she describes how her views on evil and the possibilities of forgiveness were shaped by her prison interviews with Eugene de Kock, whose horrible acts during the apartheid era earned him the nickname “Prime Evil.” Although Pumla will occasionally address the audience directly at a few points in the play, the rest of the action consists of flashbacks to those interviews. The first interview, which occurred in 1997, begins with some awkward formalities. Here, Pumla expresses her discomfort in calling him “Eugene”; she tells him that this is because she has determined to not cross the line by allowing any emotional connection between them. Amused, de Kock compares the setting to the scene in The Silence of the Lambs where FBI agent Starling first meets Dr. Hannibal Lecter. de Kock tells her that unlike the serial killer in the film, he must not be simply dismissed as a monster; if he is merely human, other humans must account for his actions.

Pumla’s primary interest in meeting him one-on-one stems from his trial for his role in the so-called Motherwell Bombing, an incident where two black policemen were killed. de Kock, who was a policeman as well, confessed to his role in the planning and implementation of the bombing. Although he is riddled with guilt, his stronger emotion is anger, because he told the truth while his guilty comrades denied their involvement. His superiors, who had ordered the bombing, were able to attribute the tragedy to “a few bad apples” in the department and are free and living their lives. What caught Pumla’s attention, however, was that at the end of the trial, de Kock asked to meet with the two widows. He describes how in that private meeting, one of the widows hugged him, offered her forgiveness, and told him that he could change his ways. Moved by his tears, Pumla reaches out to comfort Eugene and touches his hand; she has already begun to cross the line she swore to herself that she’d never step over.

Pumla now addresses the audience directly, describing her next meeting with de Kock. There, at a public hearing, de Kock loudly proclaims that the hand of his that she touched in prison was his “trigger hand.” Pumla is confused and horrified; was he ridiculing her, or was something else going on? We now flash back to their next prison interview, and Pumla challenges him about the remark. de Kock asserts that he was not intending to mock her at all; by way of explanation, he simply says that the line between good and evil is much thinner than most of us are comfortable with. He tells her that if she really wants to understand him, she will have to “dig in the dirt” with him, as he proceeds to describe his time in charge of the counterterrorist encampment at Vlakplass. There, it was his assignment to hunt down members of the insurgent African National Congress (ANC). If he could, he would convert his captives to askari, or hitmen; if this conversion by torture failed, he would simply kill the prisoners. He begins describing the methods of torture in gruesome detail, but the two pause for a coffee break. Eugene asks Pumla about her own life, and she reveals that she was once married until she got a divorce from her husband. Surprised and rattled by her own openness, Pumla quickly returns to the topic of Eugene’s activities, asking him if he ever hurt women and children. Eugene says that armed women were often targeted, and reluctantly admits that two boys were killed in one attack in Botswana, but that this was unintentional. Pumla asks him how he could willingly participate in such activities; Eugene claims that he was under intense pressure from his superiors, who were in turn under pressure from the politicians, who themselves were under pressure from the public. Bitterly, he proclaims that after the collapse of apartheid, white South Africa needed a scapegoat and black South Africa needed a villain. He has become a symbol, “Prime Evil,” but he asserts again that he is not the “other,” the monster; as Pumla later concedes, he is simply a human being with motives and causes, like everyone else.

Addressing the audience once more, Pumla tells of her own trip to Vlakplaas to see the remains of the camp, and reveals to us that her sister Sesi, who unlike her did not have the strength to leave her husband, is seriously ill with the AIDS she contracted from her spouse. Returning to the next interview, Pumla and Eugene meditate on the existence of pure evil. She suggests that perhaps his evil acts stemmed from his childhood. He calls this psychological rubbish, although he reveals several details about his early life that make us wonder. His father was verbally abusive and strict; his mother once left home for a while, a period that caused Eugene the greatest fear he has ever experienced. His life as a student was not much better, as he was afflicted with poor eyesight and a pronounced stutter. Finally, he was endlessly indoctrinated in the ideals of Afrikaans superiority, and the notion that black control of the country would be the worst possible nightmare. I am not a racist, he says—it was simply a case of us versus them. However, he refuses to use any of these things as a rationale or excuse for what he did. Pumla presses him further, and he tells us of an incident that changed him profoundly. Operating, as they often did, across national borders, his group killed some ANC foot soldiers. Going through the backpack of a man they had captured, he found not the writings of Marx, Lenin or Mao, but instead a Bible, in fact the very same edition of the Bible he had. This called everything he had ever believed in into question and he went, as he described it, a little “bush-crazy” in the borderlands. Yet he also refuses to use mental illness to absolve him of guilt and responsibility. Pumla then admits that long ago, she witnessed the execution of a leader of an attempted coup, and that she cheered as his dead body was dragged through the streets. For this, she sees herself as being nearly as guilty as the executioners.

Finally, Eugene tells her the story of the incident that marked the final break from his former self. It happened in Swaziland; as he says, when you cross national borders, all legal and moral boundaries disappear. In this case, Eugene shot an ANC “terrorist” in cold blood. He had done this many times before, but this time was different. As he was returning home, he felt that he could smell the blood on his body and clothes, that he could taste the blood in his mouth. The reality finally hit home for him; a human being died that night. Pumla addresses us directly, saying that Eugene had finally “paid the debt he owed his conscience.” We learned that after her work with the TRC, she returned to America for a time, but on hearing that Sesi was near death, she returned. She notes that the sight of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, which had always filled her with sorrow and terror from her memories of apartheid, now seemed beautiful to her. For the first time, she says, she is truly home. After Sesi dies, Pumla stays in South Africa. Although her work for the TRC is long over, she feels the need to visit de Kock one last time. de Kock relates that his situation in prison has improved. He also tells of how he is a hero to the young white supremacists in the neighboring cell, but that he is disgusted by their racist ideology. Eugene assumes the role of questioner now, and asks Pumla if he ever killed or hurt someone close to her. He had always assumed that her feelings about this were personal, but when she tells him that he never hurt anyone close to her, he understands that she was truly motivated by the desire to understand and heal. He asks if she would forgive him had he hurt someone close to her, to which she simply replies, “I don’t know.” He asks whom she cannot forgive, and she vents her anger about those who ignore and spread lies about AIDS, about politicians who sell their souls and votes to corporate masters, and especially about people being forced to lead lives of disappointment and pain. She says that she has both anger and hope in her heart, to which Eugene replies, “We fought for nothing.”

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela on the power of narrative
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