Scholar on forgiveness in post-apartheid South Africa wins Templeton Prize

Dr. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a psychologist who served on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and developed a model for social healing.

2024 Templeton Prize Winner Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Stefan Els, Stellenbosch University)

(RNS) — As a psychologist working for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela was stunned when a handful of widows came forward to forgive their husbands’ murderer, the infamous assassin and police commander Eugene de Kock.

An agent of the apartheid who admitted to more than 100 acts of murder and torture, de Kock’s crimes had earned him the moniker “Prime Evil.” The widows’ confounding actions led Gobodo-Madikizela to probe the topic of forgiveness more deeply, eventually leading her to conclude that forgiveness is about desiring and believing in a person’s capacity to transform.

“You are also bringing something into the world, so that something changes,” Gobodo-Madikizela said in a video statement. “The death of your loved one births something else.”

After decades of research on trauma and forgiveness, Gobodo-Madikizela, a professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, was named the winner of the 2024 Templeton Prize on Tuesday (June 4). The award honors individuals who use scientific advancements to answer the deepest questions related to humanity’s existence and purpose.

The prize was established by the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton and comes with an award of 1.1 million British pounds (more than $1.3 million). Gobodo-Madikizela is the second African woman to receive the prize since its launch in 1973, following 2023 winner Edna Adan Ismail.

“As a psychologist, scholar, and commentator, she has served as a guiding light within South Africa as it charts a course beyond apartheid, facilitating dialogue to help people overcome individual and collective trauma,” Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, said in a press release. “Her work underscores the importance in contemporary life of cultivating the spiritual values of hope, compassion, and reconciliation.”

2024 Templeton Prize Winner Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Stefan Els, Stellenbosch University)

2024 Templeton Prize Winner Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Stefan Els, Stellenbosch University)

Gobodo-Madikizela, 69, was born in 1955 in Langa, a township designated for Black residents on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. Though her early years were marked by the brutality of apartheid — she recalls hiding from tanks driving through her town — the community of Black families in Langa taught her humanist values she carried into adulthood. Her parents, who ran a general store, also instilled in her values of compassion and integrity at an early age.

“One really experienced the meaning of the value of Ubuntu, which is a worldview that taught us that one’s subjectivity is bound up with, and only meaningful in relationship with others,” Gobodo-Madikizela told Religion News Service about her upbringing via email.

Those values informed Gobodo-Madikizela’s work in the 1990s, when she chaired the Human Rights Violations Committee in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Western Cape office. It was in that capacity that she met with de Kock in prison in 1997 to elicit testimony from him.

Over the course of three months, she heard his accounts of the graphic murders he committed and his expressions of remorse. Those now-famous conversations are recounted in Gobodo-Madikizela’s 2003 award-winning book “A Human Being Died That Night,” which explores humanity’s capacity for evil, virtue and change, and are immortalized in a play by the same name.

As part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Gobodo-Madikizela witnessed firsthand evidence that human beings are a “constellation of contradictions,” she told RNS. Over the course of one hearing, she recalled seeing a former apartheid security police officer both weep as he demonstrated how he would torture his victims, and gloat about the power he once held over them. In these moments, the ethical knowledge Gobodo-Madikizela was raised with became embodied, allowing her to “stretch” her “vision about what’s possible in the human condition” and “embrace ambiguity.”

Gobodo-Madikizela’s research on forgiveness and trauma in post-apartheid South Africa culminated in her development of “the reparative quest,” a model for social healing. That model, she told RNS, goes beyond the language of forgiveness. While forgiveness suggests finality, reckoning with the past is often “an opening, rather than a closure,” she said.

According to Gobodo-Madikizela, the severing and repair of human relationships is an inherently spiritual process. “When people are traumatized, there is a rupture of the spiritual connection between us as human beings,” she said in a video statement. “And so, when conditions are created to repair the rupture, we call on the spiritual, the powerful spiritual connection of humanness to another human — bone of my bone, spirit of my sprit — that beckons us to connect at that level. There’s something about that moment, that has the power of a presence.”

Today, Gobodo-Madikizela directs the Center for the Study of the Afterlife of Violence and the Reparative Quest at Stellenbosch University and is a research chair in violent histories and transgenerational trauma for the South African National Research Foundation. She has previously been awarded The Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award and Rhodes University’s Social Change Award. She plans to allocate some of the Templeton Prize money to support scholarships and programs at Stellenbosch University, including research projects that examine questions related to violent histories and repair.

This story has been updated.

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