Gobodo-Madikizela Talks Trauma, Paradox of Remorse

On Oct. 26, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Professor of Psychology at Cape Town University, South Africa and author of the 2011 St. Mary’s summer reading book “A Human Being Died That Night,” spoke at St. Mary’s Hall for her lecture “Engaging the Other: Trauma, Witnessing, and the Paradox of Remorse.”

Gobodo-Madikizela has a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Rhodes University and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Cape Town. She is a Senior Consultant for the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town and served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after the abolition of apartheid in South Africa. She visited the St. Mary’s campus for four days during the week of Oct. 23-29 and gave several lectures to the students taking the first-year seminars, in addition to her talk on Oct. 26.

She began her lecture by expressing her honor at visiting St. Mary’s, thanking the school for the “wonderful few days I’ve spent here.” She described the first-years she had spoken with earlier in the day, as “profound, thoughtful students.”
Her experiences with post-apartheid South Africa have sent her on a personal and professional journey to answer two questions: How have different groups with a history of violence dealt with the experience of everyday trauma and how have experiences of the past shaped these groups? She says that her work grew out of an investigation into the extreme violence of “necklace murders,” a brutal form of torture in which a rubber tire filled with gasoline is placed around a victim’s neck and set on fire. Gobodo-Madikizela wanted to discover how to theorize about this unspeakable violence.

She discovered that the perpetrators of torture distanced themselves from the murders, describing them as a “surreal experience.” Their transformation was influenced by layers of experiences of deprivation, degradation and humiliation. She said, “The capacity for reflection and the ability to emphasize with others is disrupted by traumatic experiences.”

Severely abused individuals cut off a painful experience to protect themselves, called disassociation, and this tendency may persist into adulthood. “The tragic and gloomy aspects of a person with a history of traumatic experiences are taken out on another person. Past traumas do not simply go away or disappear…the trauma reemerges again and again. Conversation about facing the past…remains a critical aspect of transformations.”

Gobodo-Madikizela’s work with the TRC emphasized dialogue between the victims and the perpetrators. She aimed to unravel the “complex legacies of the past.” The sessions set an important narrative trend for the 20th and 21st centuries, showing that people can no longer ignore the importance of facing the past. “The significance of the TRC is not so much in its failure or success,” said Gobodo-Madikizela. “It is in the great insight it has given us about how to engage with ones former enemies.”

She went on to emphasize remorse and its significance in recovering from trauma. She said that it is an easy route to set those who inflict violence aside as monsters, but by allowing them to reclaim their sense of humanity, victims can share that humanity with their perpetrators. Until one feels remorse, he or she remains closed to healing. The TRC was a unique environment where the evildoers did not deny the atrocities they committed, but were encouraged to own up to them and feel remorse.

While discussing the TRC, Gobodo-Madikizela shared several anecdotes about victims who forgave the dealers of violence and helped them redefine their lives after evil. The rehumanization of the perpetrators allowed the people of South Africa to imagine the possibility of living side by side with reminders of pain.

To conclude her lecture, Gobodo-Madikizela answered several questions about her personal experiences during apartheid and her work with the TRC. She emphasized the importance of “witnessing to each other about our pain” and opening dialogue to encourage healing.

Professor of Anthropology Bill Roberts, who attended the talk said, “Personally, I found her talk intellectually compelling and emotionally uplifting.  I found her focus on ‘empathy’ as a mechanism by which we all have the opportunity to recognize our common humanity, something recognizable to an anthropologist.”

The response to her lecture was immensely positive with students as well. “I thought it was spectacular,” said first-year Allegra Garrett. “She’s a real inspiration and a very wise woman.”