A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid

A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid

by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

ISBN: 9780618446599

Publisher Mariner Books

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Professionals & Academics

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Sample Chapter


1 /
Scenes from Apartheid
As I drove the last half-mile of the road that leads to South Africa"s
notorious Pretoria Central Prison, I felt a dread unlike any I had felt in my
earlier visits. Before I could make myself ready, a huge sign high above me at
the entrance announced the noble agenda: "Correctional Services: Pretoria."
The reassuringly professional sign was one of many changes, I half noted,
that must have been introduced by the new black director of prisons. I slowed
down my car, drove up to within a few yards of the prison entrance, and
turned the engine off. I sat there, seeing but not seeing the people milling
around gloomily after a visit with loved ones, waiting for the taxi vans that
would drive them back to the impoverished townships on the outskirts of
Pretoria. My anxiety built until I felt as if it could have exploded through the
windows of my car.
The white guard stationed by the prison entrance was by now
looking at me suspiciously. I impulsively turned on the ignition, not sure
whether to move the car or, as I then decided, to get out, approach the
security checkpoint, and announce myself to the guard. Anticipating that he
would ask me to spell my name, I handed him my business card. He went
to the telephone in his small observation room and returned to tell me that
Doreen Krause, the head of the maximum security section of the prison,
was expecting me. This hardly came as a relief; by now I needed
something — any obstacle — that would give me an excuse to abandon my
mission. Farther down the road I could see the massive gray concrete walls
of the medium and maximum security sections of the prison.
The last time I"d come here was in 1989 to interview a man on
death row for killing a white farmer in the Eastern Cape. There was to be a
retrial, and the prisoner"s lawyers had asked me to prepare a psychological
report on him. That time I had driven straight to the prison without going
through Pretoria. Pretoria was a city filled with too many of apartheid"s
symbols — the Union building, the seat of apartheid"s parliament, the
statues of Afrikaner heroes, prison cells, and buildings of torture where many
opponents of apartheid, black and white, had died or disappeared or
mysteriously committed suicide. Pretoria was the heart and soul of
apartheid, and I had no desire to set foot there. But now, as I returned to
the prison eight years later, Pretoria symbolized something new. It was the
city where Nelson Mandela had been inaugurated as the first president of a
democratic South Africa. A workforce that reflected this new South Africa
had replaced many of the white men and women who had been the civil
servants of one of the most brutally repressive systems in modern history.
This day, on my way to the Central Prison, I"d driven into Pretoria to
experience the atmosphere that came along with this new phase in my
country"s existence.
I had intended to stop only long enough to pick up some extra
batteries for my small tape recorder and to buy coffee before heading for the
prison in time for my appointment at noon. Instead, within a few minutes of
entering the city, I lost my sense of direction and was driving around in
circles through Pretoria"s busy streets. It was a surreal scene in which the
forbidding architecture of the apartheid era assumed a menacing air and the
one-way streets seemed to entangle me in a maze from which I couldn"t
free myself. Even the jacaranda blooms — trademark of Pretoria"s beauty —
lining some of the streets into which I strayed couldn"t calm me. I stopped
three times in the sweltering heat to ask for directions to the prison, on
each occasion getting either inadequate or misleading directions. At last help
came. At a set of traffic lights on Schubert Street I rolled down my window
to take a chance on a middle-aged white Afrikaner motorist in a van. He
offered to lead me to the road that would take me to the prison, and I followed
him and his ordinary human goodness on my way.

Did I have any weapons in the car? the guard asked. I opened the glove
compartment and then the trunk of my car for the security check. Within a
few minutes I was driving down the road that led to the maximum security
section of the prison, where some of South Africa"s most hardened
murderers were warehoused. I parked my car and walked toward the massive
black metal gates. Inside stood a uniformed black guard who spoke to me
through a square opening screened by iron bars. He opened this gate, and as
it swung out I took a few steps back. Within seconds I had been escorted
inside, and I found myself standing in the middle of a small, dark, stuffy
passage with no windows — a checkpoint before visitors were allowed into
the main building of the section. Awed, my heart beating hard, I stared at
the blank concrete walls and wondered, as I had during my visit eight years
before, where the prison"s execution chamber was. South Africa had by
now scrapped the death penalty. But I couldn"t help wondering which corner
of the prison apartheid"s hangman had presided over. I could see in an
adjacent room a guard in uniform, a semiautomatic assault rifle braced
smartly against his hefty shoulder. He stepped out and asked me pleasantly
what the purpose of my visit was. "Oh, you are the one to see Dikoko."
I was indeed very close to seeing "Dikoko," Eugene de Kock, the
man whom many in the country considered the most brutal of apartheid"s
covert police operatives. "Prime Evil" — his far less familial-sounding
nickname — would be more than an abstraction to me within minutes. I
was thankful for the presence of the black guard, and amused by his and all
the other black guards" mispronunciation of "de Kock" as "Dikoko." As
behind-the-scenes engineer of apartheid"s murderous operations, he had
been faceless and nameless. Now that he was exposed, his name was as
unpronounceable — as unspeakable — as his deeds.
Another guard was called, and I was escorted out of the reception
room and into a paved area with a small patch of green grass — a rich
green that seemed to have been thrown into the midst of the prison gray to
shock. My escort and I approached the main maximum security building, the
immaculately polished brass trim of its entrance sparkling in the sun. The
journey through the prison gates, a total of nine, was not undramatic.
Walking through the maze of passages with brightly polished floors —
thanks to cheap prison labor — I heard excited shouts and whistling from
some black prisoners on a balcony above. They seemed to be enjoying the
sight of a female visitor navigating the prison"s corridors. Trying not to spoil
their fun, I looked up and acknowledged their cheers with a smile. At that
moment I felt as if I needed to be cheered more than they did. Finally, leaving
behind me the shouting prisoners and noisy keys, each sounding its own
note of power at each prison gate, I passed through a metal detector and the
last entrance to "C-Max," the section where de Kock was imprisoned. My
jitteriness caused me to seize on a second irony. The covert operations unit
from which de Kock had commanded fear and power and crafted apartheid"s
most brutal schemes was the "C" section of the security department. Now he
had come to lose that power in the "C" section of the prison, where, as a
prisoner categorized as among the most dangerous, he had no privileges, no
In C-Max I was walking into a world of even more intense grays —
gray walls, gray ceiling, gray floor. In search of some escape from this dull,
depressing grayness, my mind wandered to the patch of green I had seen
outside. It was an image I would return to many times in my subsequent
trips to the prison; the grass stood out in my mind as an invitation to escape
from the world of the living dead to that of the living.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the room was de
Kock"s bright orange prison overalls. The color was shocking, so much a
part of the scenery I associated with the many prison movies I had seen.
Silence of the Lambs immediately came to mind, and there was something
about that memory that brought a shiver, though its real significance in my
meeting with de Kock would emerge two weeks later. As I entered the tiny
room, with gray walls and a disproportionately long table and an old leather
chair with wheels, de Kock got up, balancing himself against the wall. His
feet were chained to a metal stool bolted to the floor. He smiled politely,
making eye contact from behind his black-rimmed thick lenses. I could hear
the clattering of his leg chains as he awkwardly steadied himself, extending
his hand to greet me. He spoke in a heavy Afrikaans accent: "It"s a pleasure
to meet you." I knew the face; I had seen it in the newspapers, and at public
hearings during his first appearance before the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, but this was the closest I had ever been to Eugene de Kock.
As he smiled shyly, perhaps politely, rising to greet me, I saw a flicker of
boyishness, of uncertainty. At the same time, my mind registered "Prime
Evil," the name that marked him as the surest evidence of all that had
happened under apartheid. De Kock had not just given apartheid"s murderous
evil a name. He had become that evil. The embodiment of evil stood there
politely smiling at me.
I, like every black South African, have lived a life shaped by the
violence and the memories of apartheid. I have three linked stories to share.
In 1994 I was completing my doctoral fellowship at Harvard
University. On the morning of April 27 I joined the many South Africans
assembled at the State House in Boston, where a voting center for South
Africans had been created. I was the first person to vote, and my emotions
were so intense that I seemed to feel them concretely as something that
flooded through me. As I walked to the voting booths, I had an overwhelming
sense that I was being transported from one historical moment, where I"d
been a second-class citizen in my country of birth — where my parents and
their parents had been sent from this place to that, wherever the mass
removals and demolitions of black areas destined them to go, finally settling
in the nominally independent "homeland" of Transkei — to another historical
moment of power, pride, and affirmation. I remember later that day feeling a
deep satisfaction, as if I had just completed a difficult race.
When I returned to South Africa in June of that year, on a beautiful
clear winter day, I became aware for the first time that in my past travels I
could not have described myself as a South African. I could only say that I
was from South Africa. I remember thinking as my plane landed that day in
Cape Town, This is my country, my home. Driving from the airport, past
Langa Township, where I grew up, with its "informal settlement" sprawl
visible from the freeway, I couldn"t help recalling that when I was a child living
in the township, Cape Town had been out of my reach. As township dwellers,
we were Cape Towners in name only. I never truly saw Table Mountain, the
epitome of the beauty of this magnificent city, although it is within visual
reach of the township; it was part of the world that had tried to strip my
people of their dignity and respect, part of the world that had reduced them
to second-class citizens in their own country. Langa, like all other South
African townships, which were established by the apartheid government as a
labor pool for white business, was a world of poverty, where all houses looked
alike, each connected to the next like carriages in a long, endless train;
where people left their homes to catch early morning trains that took them
to the city at dawn; where a history of discrimination, repression, and
exclusion from the privileges that citizenship and wealth confer had left its
debilitating mark of poverty.
The first time I witnessed a scene of violence, I was five.
On March 21, 1960, a remarkable event occurred that transformed
the nature of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. That day several
thousand black people gathered in the township of Sharpeville to protest the
notorious pass laws requiring blacks to carry internal passports, thus totally
regulating their lives. The police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 and
wounding 186, including women and children. Most of the victims were shot
in the back while fleeing. The Sharpeville incident was followed by
countrywide demonstrations in black townships, leading to more bloodshed.
In the township of Langa, the carnage was worse than in Sharpeville. At
least this is how I would remember the events that I witnessed as a little girl
of five from behind the hedge of my mother"s small garden of our tiny house
at 69 Brinton Street.
My memory of the 1960 Langa violence is something I still find
difficult to shake out of my mind. Yet its accuracy was tested in 1996
when, as a committee member on South Africa"s Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, I was forced to revisit the events in Langa Township. What I
remembered was the commotion in the row of houses on my street — all
replicas of the matchbox structure that was my home. Men I knew as
fathers of the girls and boys I played with were running past looking
frightened, jumping fences to be anywhere but in their own homes. These
were men I referred to as "father," or "so-and-so"s father." We never called
them by their first names. These were the same fathers you would not want
to catch you doing anything wrong in the streets, like playing outside in the
dark. Countless times I had shared candy with their children, candy already
in my mouth, or in theirs, split and broken into bits inside the mouth so that
one, two, or three others could have whatever tiny piece could be shared.
These were the men who brought us the candy, but now they were scared
and running.
Men I had never seen in my home came out of the coal shed at
the back of our house with blackened faces. Some came into the house,
moving beds to hide under them, or in closets. Others wore what I later
remembered as a look of defiance or impotent rage.


Excerpted from "A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid" by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. Copyright © 2004 by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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