Do We All Have a Capacity for Evil?

a human being died

A Human Being Died That Night: Forgiving Apartheid’s Chief Killer

by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (2003)

Book Review

A Human Being Died That Night explores the political, sociological and psychological influences that lead individuals to engage in torture, assassination and other forms of state terrorism. Psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela was an adviser to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).* Her book is based on a series of prison interviews she conducted with the ex-commander of the apartheid regime’s death squad Eugene De Kock.

In my view, it’s of special relevance given recent calls to prosecute CIA officers involved in torturing post-911 detainees. At present, it’s fashionable to dismiss all perpetrators of heinous violence as evil psychopaths. The main value of Gobodo-Madikizela’s book is to remind us that we all have the capacity for evil.

De Kock was already in prison serving two life sentences before he made his first appearance in front of the TRC. His role was to testify in the case of five former security police who were applying for amnesty for murdering (on DeKoch’s orders) three black policeman who threatened to expose their involvement in the death of four black activists. Asking to meet with family members of the dead policemen, De Kock appeared to express genuine remorse for ordering their assassination. This gesture – as well as the clear emotional release he experienced afterwards – greatly surprised Gobodo-Madikizela. The psychologist had dismissed him as a sociopath and incapable of remorse.

The Prison Interviews

The purpose of the author’s 1997-2000 prison interviews with de Kock was to gain better understanding of the ways oppressive political systems can numb someone’s conscience to the point they can commit heinous crimes. She concludes the relationship between personal choice and societal pressure is never straightforward in a totalitarian society.

It’s quite clear from his own words that de Kock’s superiors brainwashed him into perceiving African National Congress (ANC) and Pan African Congress (PAC) activists as Communists – as opposed to freedom fighters – who were threatening to plunge South Africa into the chaotic violence Congo, Angola and Mozambique experienced following independence. The apartheid regime also systematically portrayed the battle against liberation activists as a religious war in which God was on the side of the regime. Opting out of their violent role for religious or ethical reasons was impossible. The regime dealt extremely harshly with officers who attempted to do so.

The Role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

As Gobodo-Madikizela explains, some restorative process is essential when a civil war ends and victims and perpetrators are forced to live alongside one another. Merely scapegoating and locking up a few “bad apples” does nothing to remediate the psychological trauma victims have incurred, which she blames for the intergenerational cycles of violence that have plagued other African countries.

In her view, the most important benefits of the TRC were forcing perpetrators to see their victims as fully human and allowing victims to experience the rehumanization that occurs when they witness the pain of genuine remorse in the perpetrators who have wronged them. Other positive outcomes include a better understanding of the role the politics of oppression and abuse play in creating monsters who commit crimes against humanity. This recognition forces all participants to confront the not-so-pleasant potential for evil within themselves.

With brutal honesty, Gobodo-Madikizela confesses that her prison interviews forced her to confront her own potential for evil. The book relates an incident in which she stood by while fellow ANC members executed suspected police collaborators with “necklaces” of burning tires and did nothing to stop them.

Moral Exclusion

Gobodo-Madikizela concludes the most important dynamic leading individuals of conscience to commit heinous crimes is “moral exclusion” – a process in which they become convinced the targeted population is less than human. This dynamic is clearly in operation when CIA officers eagerly torture brown-skinned Arabs and when white cops beat the crap out of African Americans.


The author also describes in details how de Kock was scapegoated in his 1993 trial, conducted by an Afrikaner judge and prosecutor. In several interviews he expresses resentment about being scapegoated – not only by high level officials who gave the orders but by a white middle class who enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle by repeatedly voting for a political party (the National Party) committed to retaining apartheid.

Gobodo-Madikizela is particularly appalled by the hypocrisy of Nobel Prize winner F.W. de Klerk.** The latter vehemently opposes amnesty for de Koch, despite giving orders for him to “neutralize” the ANC, as well as medals for carrying them out so efficiently.

De Klerk and other high level apartheid leaders have consistently pleaded ignorance to the crimes against humanity committed by their underlings. In this respect, they stand out from three other regimes responsible for mass crimes against humanity: Germany’s Nazi regime, the Pinochet regime in Chile and Milosevic’s regime in the former Yugoslavia. Documentary evidence shows violence (ie torture and assassination) was encouraged and expected by the apartheid regime but never explicitly ordered (not in writing, at least). In the other three cases there was a clear paper trail connecting high level officials with police officers who carried it out.

* The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like restorative justice body assembled in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid. Victims of gross human rights violations had the opportunity to give testimony about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.
**In 1993 de Klerk and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

14 thoughts on “Do We All Have a Capacity for Evil?

  1. Lots of effort needed to overcome “moral exclusion” for sure. One of the more profoundly important topics in existence. Maybe even the most important. One personal example, which may have been previously shared but worth repeating, is of a late, devoted Christian aunt who, during the Reagan contra years, responded to my opposition to contras’ killing Nicaraguans by saying, “but, they’re communists.” Looking back, the choice to leave it at that instead of inviting a good discussion was a missed opportunity.


  2. Do We All Have a Capacity for Evil? I think so,In my case if i see evil i have thoughts of revenge,luckily i have never used pysicle force but who knows what future holds’


  3. I think we do, depending on the ideologies we subscribe do, and the dehumanization they present.

    The book was also a very sensitive look at forgiveness for a painful past of oppression which was upheld and maintained by the state, but which had a massive impact on the lives of ‘black’ South Africans.

    I think this writer is focusing on empathy in human rights psychology and trauma now.


  4. Stuart, I appreciate your thorough summarizing of books I don’t have time to read. I did have the opportunity to attempt to educate a friend who was working for the State Department when I went to El Salvador, during their war. He was accusing everyone of being Communists and I said they weren’t. And when I went there saw they were simply people trying to have the country honor its constitution and to relieve the economic inequities.
    On another note, could you tell me a bit more about your move to New Zealand. Is it easy ti move there? Did you give up your American citizenship? Thanks.


  5. Do We All Have a Capacity for Evil?
    I find this question fascinating. An evil act was committed yesterday at a cafe in Sydney by one deranged person. How these 17 hostages suffered over many, many hours! Some were physically harmed in the end and two beautiful people lost their lives. This is so very distressing. The hostage taker lost his life too. What on earth made him come to the point where he felt the need to turn into an evil person? Apparently he had been accused of other violent acts in the past and some court cases were an ongoing process. Dear Stuart, you probably followed in the media what happened yesterday in the CBD of Sydney. Maybe at some future time when you might be able to get a bit more in depth knowledge about the case, we might hear what you think about it?


    • I, too, am really troubled that the Australian authorities allowed him access to a weapon given his history of criminal violence and his ongoing legal problems. The whole thing has a fishy smell like we’re not being told the entire truth about the incident. Time will tell.


      • I have no idea, Stuart, how he gained access to a weapon. I think it is most likely that it was an illegal weapon. I cannot imagine that the authorities would have allowed him access to a weapon. In hindsight it is extremely regrettable that there was nobody keeping a watch on him what he was up to. As far as I know he was required to appear once a day at a police station.
        And his passport had been confiscated.


  6. Hi Doc – the most “normal” people can commit hideous evil. The recent torture report noted that many of the Agents who participated in “enhanced interrogation” had serious issues afterwards when reflecting upon what they had done. Regards


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