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South African campaigner and academic wins 2024 Templeton Prize

04 June 2024

Stefan Els for the Templeton Prize

Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela photographed in Cape Town, South Africa

Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela photographed in Cape Town, South Africa

A SOUTH AFRICAN psychologist, Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), is this year’s winner of the £1.1-million Templeton Prize.

Professor Gobodo-Madikizela, who chaired the human-rights-violations committee in the Western Cape office of the TRC, has been a “guiding light within South Africa as it charts a course beyond apartheid, facilitating dialogue to help people overcome individual and collective trauma”, the Templeton Foundation’s president, Heather Templeton Dill, said on Tuesday. She had “a remarkable grasp of the personal and social dynamics that allow for healing in societies wounded by violence. . . Her work underscores the importance in contemporary life of cultivating the spiritual values of hope, compassion, and reconciliation.”

The prize, established by the late global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, honours those whose achievements include “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it”.

Professor Gobodo-Madikizela is the South African National Research Foundation’s chair in violent histories and transgenerational trauma, and director of the Centre for the Study of the Afterlife of Violence and the Reparative Quest at Stellenbosch University. Her research has explored empathy, forgiveness, post-apartheid identity, post-Holocaust dialogue, transgenerational trauma, and memory.

She said in a statement: “We [are] capable of far greater virtue than we might have thought. My research is based on this possibility of human transformation, on probing deeper to understand the conditions necessary to restore the values of what it means to be human — to want to preserve the dignity and life of the other.”

Her Ph.D., completed in 1999, was entitled: “Legacies of Violence: An in-depth analysis of two case studies based on interviews with perpetrators of a ‘necklace’ murder and with Eugene de Kock.”

Mr Kock, nicknamed “Prime Evil” was the commanding officer of C10, a counter-insurgency unit of the South Africa Police that served as a death squad killing largely black anti-apartheid activists. During the TRC hearings, he confessed to crimes against humanity, including hundreds of murders. In 1996, he was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences, plus 212 years in prison. He was granted parole in 2015. Professor Gobodo-Madikizela’s award-winning book, A Human Being Died That Night (Mariner, 2003), is an account of the interviews she conducted with Kock while he was in prison. It argues for the possibility of remorse, accountability, and forgiveness.

In her statement, Professor Gobodo-Madikizela said that her research was based on “this possibility of human transformation, on probing deeper to understand the conditions necessary to restore the values of what it means to be human — to want to preserve the dignity and life of the other”.

“When people are traumatised, there is a rupture of the spiritual connection between us as human beings,” she said, in a video produced by the foundation. “When conditions are created to repair the rupture, we call on the powerful spiritual connection of humanness to another human — bone of my bone, spirit of my spirit — that beckons us to connect at that level. There is something about that moment that has the power of a presence.”

She went on to describe the impact of seeing victims’ widows offer forgiveness to de Kock, something for which she said she had “no reference point”.

“When people say, ‘How can you forgive someone who has killed your loved one?’, it’s not just forgiving like you are giving them something; you are also bringing something into the world so that something changes the world,” she said. “The death of the loved one births something else.”

Such encounters entailed a risk, she said: “You might be disappointed, you might be hurt, you might be retraumatised. It’s taking a risk; but sometimes, in order for futures to really change, risks such as those have to be taken.

“What we forget sometimes is that we are spiritual beings. When you think about how you care for another person, there is something spiritual about it. Just the very sense of you are encountering another person, and you are relating to that other person, aware of the meaning of their life. . . That inarticulable coming together towards the movement of repair that is a spiritual connection between us that says to me ‘I can’t hurt you,’ and that says to you ‘We are connected.’”

Professor Gobodo-Madikizela was born in 1955, in Langa, one of the oldest townships designated for Black residents outside Cape Town, and remembers hiding as tanks drove through her neighbourhood.

A Human Being Died That Night details the way in which the Church was complicit in apartheid, “providing a theological vocabulary to disguise the naked evil of what was being done”. The Afrikaans Church “actively participated in providing justification for the killing of ‘enemies of the state’,” she writes, with army chaplains who “drove the message home through their sermons preached to soldiers of the South African army, who were issued a special copy of the Bible for easy reference to the inspirational passages”.

This, she wrote, was the “context in which de Kock’s individual conscience took shape”. Unlike the Nazis, who renounced their religious faith, apartheid politicians were “ardent followers of the Christian faith”. The white “polite churchgoers” were among those whose “tacit but powerful support” underpinned apartheid.

The book also notes the presence of a “substantial ecumenical group of Christians and clergy who were a powerful force for change”.

In a 2020 interview with the New York Times, she was critical of the government that came after the TRC, which had not been “imaginative enough” to address the injustice endured by victims of apartheid. “And, when it comes to the leaders who decreed the worst parts of the apartheid policies, there was no honest accountability or truth-telling.”

She recalled that the first TRC had opened with the singing of Lizalis’idinga lakho Nkosi (“Let thy promise be fulfilled, Lord”). “That moment was filled with hope that something is going to change. But this generation of people born after apartheid is not experiencing the future that was imagined.”

She is the third South African to win the Templeton Prize, preceded by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2013), who chaired the TRC, and the physicist George Ellis (2004).

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