A state of mutual healing: Witness to the aftermath of apartheid

Nicholas Wright recalls how he returned to South Africa as research for his new play

The priest’s arms end in a pair of shiny metal hooks. His hands were blown off by a letter-bomb sent to him in 1990 by the South African government’s security apparatus. He says, without a trace of self-pity, that the pain was unimaginable.

It’s 2007 and I’m at a meeting in Cape Town of survivors of political violence from the apartheid years. I’ve been invited by the writer, lecturer and psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, whose book, A Human Being Died That Night I planned to adapt. The priest is chairman.

From my diary: I meet the widow of a man who was shot dead in a bar in the Eastern Cape. Two apparently black, balaclavaed men walked in and opened fire on the white customers, killing some and wounding many. The widow has never before talked to strangers about the attack. She is bewildered by its randomness. “They were innocent,” she protests. “They were just playing pool and having a drink. It wasn’t even a bar that my husband normally went to.” She has lost everything she ever had: her house, her car. Her husband appears to her repeatedly in dreams. She says to him, “What are you doing here? You’re dead.”

But something has changed. New evidence suggests that the gunmen were not the anti-apartheid combatants that they appeared to be, but white members of a covert government unit, demonstrating the chaos that would ensue if South Africa fell into the hands of the ANC. Not knowing the truth about her husband’s death makes this widow’s agony greater.

I hear the testimony of a robust, dark-skinned woman who was thrown out of her house by the government under the Group Areas Act, the discriminatory Act that ripped the heart out of Cape Town in the 1960s. But the place she was sent to, and where she has lived for the last 40 years, is filled, she says, with kind and neighbourly people. “The government thought they were hurting you,” she adds gently, “but they were sending you to green pastures.” She is a Christian, as are most of the people here.

I listen to the widow of a policeman who was killed in the Motherwell bombing. This was the assassination of three black policeman: an action that plays an important role in Gobodo-Madikizela’s book. Eugene de Kock, whom the book is about, played an active role. The policeman’s widow reports that on the night that de Kock confessed his part in the bombing, she dreamt that she was at her husband’s grave, burying him all over again. This was a good dream, she tells us: it means that her husband’s spirit has settled.

Eugene De Kock was far from the only state assassin in the apartheid years, nor even the most heinous, but he had the misfortune to be arrested and charged before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set about its task of absolving the perpetrators of political crimes, provided that they confessed and showed repentance. He was, by this time, a notorious figure, commonly known as “Prime Evil”, and the sentence he received was an exceptional one: two life sentences plus 212 years. Gobodo-Madikizela encountered him first at a TRC hearing, and his testimony so intrigued her that she subsequently interviewed him at length in Pretoria Central Prison, coming away with over 40 hours of recorded tape.

These interviews form the basis of her book, the theme of which is the need for reconciliation in the aftermath of state violence. I came across the book quite randomly in a London bookshop and it bowled me over by its emphasis on forgiveness and on the need to empathise, hard though it may be, with those perpetrators who are lazily labelled “monsters”.

I read the book in a gulp and knew at once that I wanted to turn it into a play. Its message applied, I thought, not only to South Africa, but to every country where state violence has been perpetrated. I also had an intuition that it would make for thrilling theatre. And, as a playwright, I relished the challenge of a play with only two speaking characters, one of whom remains chained to his chair for most of the action.

Earlier this year it travelled to the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town (the town in which I was born and brought up) and the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. There’s a singular pleasure, quite unlike anything else, about having a show of your own playing in your home town. People of all backgrounds thought Jonathan Munby’s direction and the performances of Noma Dumezweni and Matthew Marsh were fantastic, and said that the play spoke truthfully to them which, I realised later, was what I had wanted all along.

‘A Human Being Died That Night’, Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020 7722 9301; hampsteadtheatre.com) to 21 June

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