Societies that have a history of devastating social injustice, like the Republic of South Africa, can facilitate forgiveness and reconciliation by creating a space to spotlight the humanity of both perpetrators and victims, said psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, PhD, a former member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), at APA's 2004 Annual Convention in Honolulu.
In her work assisting with encounters between victims and remorseful perpetrators in South Africa, Gobodo-Madikizela said she found that when people were able to find an emotional connection, victims could see the remorse of those who had wronged them and were able to forgive.
In particular, she interviewed one of the most notorious South African killers, the commanding officer of the state-sanctioned apartheid death squad, Eugene de Kock, about his remorse and watched as he apologized to the widows of men he had killed.
Her work with him and others fulfilled part of the TRC Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee's mission to restore victims' dignity through information, explanation and opportunities for in-person apologies, some of which took place in televised hearings. She wrote about her experiences in the book "A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness" (Houghton Mifflin, 2003); the committee published its final report in 1998. Victims have a natural tendency to stay angry and not forgive because it feels easier than facing the pain that's inevitably a part of reconciliation, she said.
"People hang onto anger to distance themselves from those responsible for their pain," Gobodo-Madikizela said. "They are afraid that if they engage them as real people, instead of the evil monsters they perceive them to be, then they will be compromising their moral strength."
But when apologies are offered and forgiveness is accepted, groups of people can move on with their lives without the stress of carrying anger, she noted. Despite the terrible atrocities committed in South Africa, Gobodo-Madikizela said she saw most victims moved by the apologies of their perpetrators and able to forgive.
"What I think is happening when people forgive is the connection is not really with a killer, with a murderer, an evil person," she said. "The perpetrator's sincere apology is what invites the victim to engage with them. It's really the perpetrator acting quintessentially like a human being; he is showing his human side, and that is what the victim responds to--that is what the victim reaches out to touch. This is the moment when the breakdown of the hatred occurs."
Gobodo-Madikizela hopes other countries with crimes against humanity in their past try the South African approach of encouraging appropriate communication between victims and perpetrators.
"South Africa today serves as an example of a country that has managed to quell the instinct for revenge, even as it continues to struggle with serious social, health and economic problems, and instead embrace the shared goals of social reconciliation," she said.