‘A Human Being Died That Night’ at Hampstead Theatre

2013-05-17 17.00.23The play begins in the lobby outside the small Hampstead Theatre downstairs.  It is here that Noma Dumezweni, as Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, is giving a presentation on the human capacity for evil and the possibility of forgiveness based on her experience of interviews in Pretoria Central Prison with Eugene de Klock.

As she talks, she leads the audience into theatre, and in near darkness we file past floor to ceiling bars, inside which sat a man, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, shackled by the ankles to the floor, before taking our seats.  It is a very dramatic beginning, and creates a feeling of intense claustrophobia in the small space.

As part of her work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Goboda-Madikizela interviewed de Kock, who was then serving a sentence of two life sentences plus 212 years for crimes against humanity, for his role as one of the main assassins of the South African Apartheid regime.

As a psychologist she wanted to understand why, after a hearing into the death of two black police officers, de Kock had asked to speak directly to the widows, to ask for their forgiveness.  It seemed entirely contrary to the terrible acts he had committed in the past; was there still a human underneath all that brutality, and could she overcome her distaste for the man, to find out?

The question that hangs over the whole play is whether is his apparent remorse is genuine, or a game he is playing in an attempt to have his sentence reduced.  The paradox is that he gives the appearance of being a fundamentally moral person, albeit one who believed in the apartheid regime.  He wrong foots his interviewer from their first meeting, by standing to greet her when she enters his cell, and treating her throughout with an old fashioned politeness.

Through all the terrible admissions what clearly angers him is that officials higher up in the regime, from whom he took his orders had avoided imprisonment by pointing the finger of blame solely at him.  While acknowledging his responsibility for his own wrongdoing, he believed he was part of a bigger machine, and that there were others as responsible as him, who refused to acknowledge it.

‘I was a veteran fighter.  That’s how I saw myself.  But at the end of the day Pumla, all that I am is a veteran of lost ideologies.  Once you realise that, you lose your innocence.’

It was a mesmerising evening.  Matthew Marsh, as de Kock, was tremendous, accent perfect,  suggesting both the power and strength that allowed him to be so deadly, but also the twisted convictions that drive him, which, once they were gone, left him powerless but with a clear eye to the consequences.

It’s not something I knew anything about before watching the play, but found it a compelling examination of the idea of what can possibly constitute real remorse and forgiveness; and where a belief in a twisted morality and imperative can lead.

The play is on until 15 June.

Leave a comment


  1. I can’t pretend to understand what goes in the head of someone like de Kock, but I think he’d better stay in Pretoria Central (for his own good). He is currently trying to negotiate with Zuma for release in exchange for other evidence and information. And you know what, in this very bizarre country of ours, the possibility that that might happen can’t be ignored. I would like to believe that I could forgive a de Kock for atrocities committed against someone I love, but it’s unlikely. But that’s all beside the point, there’s no use looking at this from a personal point of view. The play sounds excellent.

    • Jill, I did wonder your take on this, as I am pretty ignorsnt about this and the people involved. I don’t think I would be able to forgive someone, no matter how much they confessed and expressed remorse. I think that’s one of the reasons I found the play so compelling.

  2. I suppose I think there are a lot of potential de Kocks out there (all over the world), but it takes a very very particular set of circumstances to allow for the monster inside to break out and do what he does and, in de Kock’s case, validate and actually encourage that type of behaviour. If he hadn’t been doing what he was at Vlakplaas working for the Nationalist Gov at that specific time in SA’s history. I don’t, for instance, think that he would have become a serial killer. But then what do I know, I’m not a psychologist. It’s such a terrible subject, such heinous actions, I’m getting quite upset sitting here trying to express myself. The atrocities that human beings are capable of…and plenty more happening around the world this second. It’s too much to take in, sometimes.

    • Oh no, I didn’t mean to upset you…. but I think you have touched on the point that made the play so thought provoking and shocking – that here was a man who had been taught to believe so strongly in the right of the Nationalist government to govern, that he was engaged in a sort of righteous war, and who was under such pressure from his superiors to meet certain targets that he behaved in a completely hideous way.


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