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Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela on the tragedy of post-apartheid South Africa

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. Photo/Getty Images

Scathing critic of South African Government corruption Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, here to give a public lecture, has insights about forgiveness after the Christchurch mosque attacks.

“The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us. We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.” – President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, inauguration speech, May 10, 1994.

What has become of Nelson Mandela’s ambitions and dreams for South Africa? Twenty-five years after his healing words echoed around the world, the “rainbow nation” is deeply divided socially, economically and politically.

Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who is visiting Auckland this month, describes the corruption that has marked the post-Mandela years as “a crime against humanity”. Despite her personal respect for President Cyril Ramaphosa, Gobodo-Madikizela, the research chair in historical trauma and transformation at Stellenbosch University, remains deeply concerned for her country and is scathing about the African National Congress (ANC).

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In 1999, Mandela was succeeded as president by Thabo Mbeki, whose father, Govan, had been a frontline ANC fighter and spent time in prison with Mandela. Mbeki’s nine-year presidency was disappointing at best, his credibility damaged from the outset by his refusal to accept and act on scientific evidence about HIV/Aids. The country’s backward slide accelerated after Jacob Zuma forced Mbeki out of office in 2008.

When Zuma resigned in February 2018, after a notorious time in office, Ramaphosa, a widely respected and self-made businessman with a strong ANC and trade-union background, took over.

Gobodo-Madikizela’s disillusionment with the ANC and post-Mandela leadership is understandable. With millions of others, she had rejoiced when Mandela became the first post-apartheid-era president.

Deputy president Thabo Mbeki and President Nelson Mandela during the 1999 election campaign. Photo/Getty Images

Despite the abhorrent regime of her childhood, the 64-year-old had a relatively fortunate upbringing. Her parents, a nurse and a teacher, were aware of the value of education and sent their daughter to a boarding school for black girls in Natal Province. Having first got approval from the Minister of Education for higher studies, she attended the then-whites-only Rhodes University, at that time the only institution offering a master’s degree in clinical psychology. While writing up her PhD during a year at Harvard in 1995, Gobodo-Madikizela was asked to join the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She served on it for two years before resuming her work and completing her PhD in 1998.

Gobodo-Madikizela’s academic research was on perpetrators of crowd violence, including necklace murders, a practice whereby blacks suspected of or known to have collaborated with the apartheid regime were publicly executed by having a tyre placed around their necks and set ablaze.

Her award-winning 2003 book, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, is based on her interviews with apartheid-era state-sanctioned assassin Eugene de Kock, as well as conclusions she came to as a result of studying necklacing and speaking to a number of people affected by such crimes.

On the phone from her home in Cape Town, Gobodo-Madikizela warns it’s been a long day and that the interview might have to be in two parts. However, it doesn’t take long for the quietly spoken professor to hit her stride in reflecting on the state of her country.

State-sponsored assassin Eugene de Kock. Photo/Getty Images

“Zuma and his cronies stole the freedom of millions of South Africans. He destroyed the morale of the country. From the moment Zuma entered the scene, he was up on rape charges, corruption – there was always drama around him. He exits 10 years later with all this crime and commissions of inquiry into the government he led.”

South Africa’s levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality are among the highest in the world – 27% of the workforce are unemployed, and black youth are the most affected. The World Bank reports that the gap between rich and poor is wider in South Africa than in any other country for which comparable data exists.

Gobodo-Madikizela says powerful factions within the ANC, which benefited from Zuma’s corrupt regime, are undermining Ramaphosa’s ability to introduce desperately needed reforms. She is particularly concerned for South Africans born in the mid-90s, the period she calls the dawn of freedom.

“Here you are, a young South African born into freedom, but 25 years down the line, you have no means by which to obtain this freedom. Can you imagine the sense of betrayal?

Funeralgoers try to necklace an alleged police informer. Photo/Getty Images

“We researched in three townships, and repeatedly young people have told us of their sense of betrayal, that they were born into freedom but they don’t know what that is. Some of them say their circumstances are worse than their parents’. One should not see this to mean that their lives are worse than [they were under] apartheid; rather, it is a statement of being betrayed by their own black leaders. They expected better. Their parents expected to be treated badly under apartheid, but the young didn’t, because their leaders are black and they said they would fight for them, but they haven’t. People continue to live in squalor and we have all the problems of poor living conditions that we had under apartheid.”

It’s a crushing reality for Gobodo-Madikizela and her contemporaries that their jubilation at Mandela’s release and ascendancy to the presidency in the first multiracial elections was followed by two decades of dashed hopes after Mandela stood down.

But last year, after Ramaphosa became president, Gobodo-Madikizela put aside cynicism and allowed hope to rise anew.

“I live alone, but when Zuma stepped down, I danced in my home alone, in my living room, and I played the song Feeling Good [It’s a new dawn], by Nina Simone, for two hours. I was so excited, and when Ramaphosa gave his speech the next day, he spoke of a new dawn.

President Jacob Zuma on a state visit to the UK in 2010. Photo/Getty Images

“Getting rid of Zuma – there was so much hope. The swings and ebbs of emotion can be painful when reality hits; the mess in the ANC is deep. In February, when we heard the President’s State of the Nation Address and saw the appointment of ministers, it was a great disappointment. We had hopes for something concrete about what would happen, but there is a sense that Ramaphosa is not free to make the kinds of decisions he wants.”

There is still a relatively free press in South Africa and Gobodo-Madikizela and others use it to publicly criticise the entrenched corruption in successive governments that has derailed the South African dream.

“I have written highly critical op-ed pieces, but the power within the ANC is astounding. Within the ANC, those trying to fight to rebuild are overwhelmed by these others. I’ve called this massive unspeakable corruption a crime against humanity, because it is destroying the futures of young people born into freedom, but who haven’t seen it. Apartheid was a crime against humanity and it often manifested itself in physical violence. This is a different kind of violence to be sure, but it is violence, insidious and experienced as a deep sense of betrayal.”

By nature, Gobodo-Madikizela is an optimist. She concedes there is still a chance of change for the good, but hers is a lukewarm and highly conditional hope that quickly turns again into pessimism.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa. Photo/Getty Images

“We are such a complicated country. Even as I am sounding pessimistic, I wake up and the existence of someone like Cyril Ramaphosa and the things he wants to do for the country – that is hopeful. But then you see the machinations of those who are set to destroy our country and we hover back and forth between hope and despair – the despair fanned by factions in the ANC. Haven’t they seen what happens in other countries where you don’t act with a united voice? Or seen what corruption does? Where is their sense of responsibility for the generations to come? Don’t they want a better legacy after apartheid? This is self destruction.”

Gobodo-Madikizela is in Auckland this month to deliver the Sir John Graham Lecture. Its title, “Across Our Fault Lines – Repairing the Brokenness of the Past”, is somewhat ironic, given her assessment of the state of her nation, but it’s also timely in the wake of Christchurch’s March 15 mosque shootings.

Having devoted her professional life to studying the perpetrators of horrendous crimes and their victims, and the possibilities of remorse and forgiveness, Gobodo-Madikizela is not surprised that, almost immediately, some survivors of the mosque attacks and some who lost loved ones expressed forgiveness for the alleged gunman. She says this also happened in Charleston in the US after a white supremacist murdered nine African Americans during a prayer service in 2015.

“Coming out of the church, people were already expressing forgiveness. People forgive for a range of reasons. The people in Charleston were Christian and they said, ‘I am Christian and I am supposed to forgive’, or they don’t want to carry the burden of hatred and resentment. Sometimes, people forgive because they need peace in their hearts. Forgiveness is complicated.”

This article was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.