Don’t turn away

By Kieran Madden July 16, 2019

“Our noses were almost touching…we were breathing the same air.”

These are the words of Marcia Khoza, whose mother was murdered when she was five by Eugene de Kock, the most notorious government assassin of apartheid South Africa. It was her response when asked about the most memorable moment in her encounter with her mother’s killer, where she sat face-to-face with de Kock, questioning him about her mother in a search for “inner peace.” Through forgiveness, Khoza found it.

Khoza’s story was shared by our Sir John Graham Lecturer this year, Professor Pumla Gobodo Madikizela, a scholar of Historical Trauma and Transformation and a formidable advocate for remorse and forgiveness. She was the one who asked Khoza the question, and as a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, has spent a lot of time face-to-face with apartheid perpetrators and victims alike. What can we learn from this experience from across the world?

We must foster a culture that creates spaces for “intentional openness to the possibility of reaching out beyond the self and toward the Other,”

A statue of Captain Cook in Gisborne was recently vandalised with the words “THIEF PAKEHA.” Our nation is still reeling from the Christchurch shootings. While New Zealand is not South Africa, we have our own wounds and our own national story of trauma between races and cultures. Professor Gobodo-Madikizela’s lecture showed us that these tensions will not be overcome unless we face up to our unique history.  

She told us that she would sometimes ask perpetrators whether they had remembered the faces of those they killed. Surprisingly most did, and could describe them and their final moments in detail.

Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas talks about “the epiphany of the face,” whereby our tendency to focus on ourselves and our own wellbeing is “interrupted” by the other—we are somehow pierced by their gaze and irrevocably transformed by the encounter. In her remarks Gobodo-Madikizela quoted Levinas saying that in these encounters we are confronted with a “responsibility for the Other,” that as another looks at me, I am no longer for myself but now for the other. We can ignore it but the imperative remains.

Sometimes it takes someone from a faraway land to remind us how profound our traditions can be. Professor Gobodo-Madikizela was moved by the parallels between the hongi that she experienced on a marae during her visit, and Khoza’s “sharing of breath.” This action demonstrates a posture that is required to overcome hurt.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are not possible if we are willing to settle for a frosty, and separate, state of unequal coexistence. It’s easy to dismiss and turn away from the hurt that caused a protestor to disfigure a statue, but that hurt will not go away unless we face up to the truth that informs the words “THIEF PAKEHA.”

We must foster a culture that creates spaces for “intentional openness to the possibility of reaching out beyond the self and toward the Other,” as Gobodo-Madikizela puts it. The starting point for this kind of encounter is people who are willing to acknowledge one another, face to face.

Across Our Fault Lines

Every society must negotiate how it will repair acts of wrongdoing— whether in the individual experience of crimes committed against particular victims, or through the ongoing social consequences of cultural, racial, or religious conflict.

In her 2019 Sir John Graham Lecture, Professor Gobodo-Madikizela reflected on the successes and failures of the practice of reconciliation as a response to historic injustices; and considered questions about its capacity to interrupt intergenerational cycles of suffering and to bring wholeness and lasting peace. Her scholarship and story contributed to our conversation as we walked through our own history and questions.

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