About midway through Mosaic Theater’s A Human Being Died That Night, Eugene de Kock, serving two life sentences for murder and assassination, turns to his interviewer, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, and says, in effect, that the privileged people of South Africa knew all along what he and the South African Special Forces were doing: the kidnapping, the torturing, the bombings, the murdering, the targeted assassinations. They just didn’t care. In fact, they de facto supported a “by any means necessary” approach to safety and security.
And so it seems, when it comes to maintaining a person’s comfortable way of life, turning a blind eye is the way of the world.
It is within that frame that A Human Being Died That Night, adapted for the stage by Nicholas Wright, offers us its gripping conversation between a Black South African psychologist and a former henchman of the Apartheid state.
Erica Chamblee and Chris Genebach play this unlikely pair thrown together by a mutual desire for truth with an unwavering commitment to keeping it professional, on the one hand, and non-threatening, on the other. Beneath their controlled façades is a bubbling interior that only occasionally erupts into view.
To be sure, the script is journalistic to a fault, as it recounts de Kock’s acts of counter-insurgency in great detail.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, author of A Human Being Died That Night, the nonfiction book on which the play is based, served on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which came into existence after the collapse of Apartheid in 1994. Currently, a professor of memory and forgiveness at the University of the Free State in South Africa, she took particular interest in de Kock when he turned to the widows of two of his black victims and asked for a private meeting.
Nicknamed “Prime Evil” by the South African media (hyperbole seems a media constant worldwide), de Kock and Gobodo-Madikizela met for a series of interviews. She wanted to know what prompted this “evil” man to meet these women; he, in turn, wanted the world to understand that he was not some random “bad apple” embodying “evil”, but a part of a wide-ranging security apparatus that would go to any extent to destroy threats to white minority rule.
Apparently, after the African National Congress (ANC) took over South Africa, most of the people who constructed, participated in, or benefitted from that system of violence never met with justice, as de Kock had. Most went on to prosper and thrive.
So de Kock, an unassuming South African counter-insurgency commando during the Apartheid era, is jailed for two lifetimes and 212 years for more than 89 crimes. The people who gave him his orders, however, sit at home enjoying soccer games on their nice TVs while their grandchildren play in the backyard.
Ironically, as de Kock confesses his “crimes”, we realize that there were no acts of sadism or unconscious brutality. He did nothing akin to the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War or Abu Ghraib or Haditha during the 3rd Iraq War. De Kock’s acts were, in effect, run-of-the-mill counter-insurgency operations: an organized kidnapping here, a targeted assassination there, a torture somewhere else.
Each act was done by the handbook, in the name of protecting white South Africans and their privileged way of life.
The fact that their privileged way of life goes on is the real story here. How does forgiveness work when those who gained from the acts of violence still possess what they have gained?
Does forgiveness then become a way of life, a way of life spawned and fostered by the continuation of the privileged?
A Human Being Died That Night offers its audience a complex portrait of two people trapped within a system that thrives on that paradox.
The color of that system has changed. The means of violence may have changed as well but, as the text of A Human Being Died That Night makes clear, whether the person dies by explosives or by an unchecked AIDS epidemic the demands of reconciliation remain the same.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
A Human Being Died That Night plays in rep with Blood Knot through April 30, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.
Review: ‘Blood Knot’ at Mosaic Theater Company of DC by Ravelle Brickman
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s website.