Hampstead Theatre play shows how humanity lurks even within a mass murderer

in A Human Being Died That Night

in A Human Being Died That Night - Credit: Archant

Questions of forgiveness, redemption, and how a moral person can become a mass murderer are aired in a tense prison drama set in South Africa.

A Human Being Died That Night is based on real conversations between clinical psychologist Pumla Godobo-Madikizela and former South African police colonel Eugene de Kock in Pretoria Central Prison – where he is serving 212 years for kidnap, torture and murder.

Dubbed by the media ‘Pure Evil’, de Kock was commanding officer of the force’s counter insurgency unit in the 80s and 90s, heading up a death squad to hunt down opponents of the apartheid regime.

Jonathan Mumby, who directs Nicholas Wright’s play at Hampstead Theatre, says: “It’s an incredibly intense 80-minute drama, based on 60 hours of interviews. We see in real time this man opening up to her, discovering the humanity inside himself, reconciling with why he committed these crimes and who he was when he did it.

“His nickname is Pure Evil but Pumla is debunking the whole idea of what evil is.”

Gobodo-Madikizela, a professor of trauma, memory and forgiveness with an interest in post-conflict reconciliation, met de Kock while she was sitting on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 1997.

“As a major perpetrator of genocide under apartheid, he gave evidence. During the hearing he asked to meet the wives of two of his victims in private, during which he apologised unreservedly.

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“He thought they would attack him but instead they did something extraordinary. They walked over with tears in their eyes, hugged him and forgave him.

“Pumla was fascinated by this incident and by the sense that there was something shifting in him, a rebirth of a human being.

“She recognised he was completely in conflict with the things he had done and needed to find some way of coming to terms with that.”

During one conversation, de Kock said of a murder he committed: ‘I realise now a human being died that night’ – a statement that could refer to a kind of death for both victim and perpetrator.

Indoctrinated at an early age by his father into Afrikaner Nationalist ideology, he had always dreamed of serving in the military and became, says Mumby, “a soldier operating within a system that sanctioned his actions”.

“There’s a deep sense of anger and injustice that he became the scapegoat for the regime, incarcerated for life while his bosses walked away scot free.

“His trial was bad timing – before the TRC was set up where if perpetrators told the truth and contributed to national reconciliation they were offered full immunity.

“De Kock’s superiors flocked to those hearings and purged themselves, mostly dropping him in it because he was already in prison.”

Wider relevance

The play’s concern with post-conflict trauma – whether for men like de Kock, self-confessedly “troubled by the souls of the people he killed”, or the victims whose harrowing evidence Gobodo-Madikizela has meticulously recorded – clearly has wider relevance to similar atrocities from Northern Ireland to Rwanda.

“Questions of whether Pumla can forgive either personally or as a representative of a people run through the piece and there remains an ambiguity in it, a sense of the messiness of human beings.

“Ultimately it’s not just a localised story. There are victims and perpetrators of crimes in many cultures – Germany, Ireland, Israel.

“Trial and retribution isn’t necessarily the best way to deal with crimes of the past. The truth and reconciliation movement tries to learn lessons of the past, to heal and get on with life.

“No-one wants to live with fear, anger and guilt handed down through generations, but forgiveness is not about forgetting but about acknowledging, then being able to move on.”

n A Human Being Died That Night runs at Hampstead Theatre downstairs until June 21.