‘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.

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July 1997

Continuing my occasional series reviewing the round the world trip I did in 1997, I’ve reread my journal from this week, and looked at the photos I took.  I was in South Africa, and my memories are of hiring a car and driving through the wine areas around Stellenbosch, along the coast to Knysna and to Oudtshoorn.  I remember the deep, deep blue of the sky and the grey green of the mountains beyond the vineyards and the white of the old farm houses.

My journal gives me both less and more detail.  There are comments on things that, now prompted, I do remember, and others that I still don’t recall clearly at all.

When I first took possession of the car, a 4 door white Toyota Celica, rather large for it to be the smallest available, I immediately head off down the Atlantic coast heading for the Cape of Good Hope.  There I remarked on the dramatic topography, the blueness of the sky and the high wind.  I watched serious looking rangers with guns chasing marauding baboons away from groups of picnickers.  The baboons darted in for an attack, a stubborn look on its face – not an attractive animal.  Lots of unpleasant tourists too.

Hark at her!

Only a day later, just one week into what was to be a five month trip at the start of which I had promised myself that I was not going to buy lots of stuff along the way, I chanced upon an art gallery in Constantia, and bought a painting.  Bought a huge picture.  Bought the most expensive picture of my life so far.  The VAT I wouldn’t have to pay if I exported it would cover the cost of shipping it to Scotland. Ho ho.  I still have that painting hanging in my living room and I look at it many times each day, and I’ve never regretted buying it.

Shell shocked after the purchase I went to the nearby winery intent on joining the advertised tour, only to find that there wouldn’t be one as (a) I was the only person there and (b) there was no guide.  Instead I was offered a wine tasting in a room clearly designed to accommodate 4 coachloads at a time.  I was met by a bored woman.  To encourage conversation in the otherwise potentially awkward situation (in case I would be expected to talk with any knowledge about wine) I decide to offer up Russia as a conversational opening.  Bought a bottle of Merlot/Shiraz and threw it in the back of the car.

Reading through the diary these two things are repeated at frequent intervals: talking to people about Russia, as I found that it was a good way to generate chat, and buying a bottle of wine.  Those, and recording the advice I kept receiving that I must not be out after dark, which in effect meant arriving at my destination by 6pm.

I also frequently wrote about finding a congenial spot in which to sit and either watch the world go by, or to read, at the time, Babel Tower, by AS Byatt.  A big fat book bought in Cape Town.  It didn’t make it back to the UK with me, so I’m wondering if I recorded where I left it!

I made frequent comments about the reliability of the information on my guide book – The Lonely Planet – and also noted down each time a person gave me a recommendation which didn’t tally with the book.  One great source of advice was H, the landlady of a B&B I stayed in twice in Stellenbosch.  Now I read the journal I remember the long conversations I had with her.

She couldn’t hide her fascination with the fact that I was travelling alone, a thought which had never previously occurred to her.  She was only one of the people with whom I had oddly intense conversations.  I ask myself if the people I have met share so much about themselves with everyone, and wonder if I am peculiarly privileged/afflicted. 

While writing my last entry in South Africa, while waiting for my flight to Perth at Johannesburg airport, I noted that I’d done 2,200 km in the hire car.

15 Years Ago

On 1 July 1997 I set off on what turned out to be a 5 month round the world trip.  I’d recently finished a stint of working in Moscow, and was reluctant to return to the familiar world of work in London.  I’d never had any kind of long break before; I’d gone from school straight to university, and thence directly into a job.  I’d been made redundant once, but took the job in Moscow right on the back of that, and I didn’t want to rush into another thing again without a period of reflection.

My objective was Australia where I wanted to see the red desert, the flying doctors and Sydney Opera House, but decided to stop off in a few places on the way there and back, and bought myself a round the world ticket and a stack of guide books.  Having just spent a couple of years dealing with the idiosyncrasies of mid 1990s Russia, I wanted to travel through places where language shouldn’t be a barrier, where I could hire cars and drive myself, and where my credit card would work.  It might not have been everyone’s idea of an adventure agenda, but it was what I wanted.  That, and good wine.

My basic itinerary, reflected in the stops on my airline ticket was:  London, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Perth, Alice Springs, Melbourne, Cairns, Sydney, Auckland, Christchurch, Tonga, Vancouver, Boston, London.  The savvy of you will have spotted that I was going what many regarded as ‘the wrong way’, following Autumn, but I’m not a sun worshipper,and although it hadn’t been part of my calculation, going everywhere off season took away a great deal of the anxiety of finding somewhere to stay, and allowed me to practice the art of spontaneity without worry.

I wrote a journal most days throughout the trip, and I’ve been rereading it for the first time since.  The overlap between what I remember, what my photographs show, and what I chose to record in the diary is interesting.  There are many things which I wrote about which I’d entirely forgotten, while some things which are bright and distinct in my recollection don’t seem to have made it onto the page.

It’s also very interesting to see how my writing style has changed, and – dare I say – improved!

The opening entry for the adventure is all rather downbeat : Didn’t sleep very well the night before the first flight and did not, in all honesty, set out with any great enthusiasm.

 Oh dear, she doesn’t sound like she’s going to be much fun as a travelling companion.

And then, almost as the worst kind of omen, I was allocated a ‘middle seat’ on the plane, between a couple of rather broad South African ladies; one of whom, it appears gave me the benefit of her experience of a couple of days in St Petersburg: couldn’t drink anything not even bottled water, couldn’t buy anything not even plasters, saw nothing but run down buildings and poverty.  

It was but a brief foreshadowing of many conversations I was to have over the next several months: two things that most people felt compelled to comment upon were, firstly, their view of the dangers and privations of living in Russia, and secondly, how unusual it was that I should be travelling on my own, as I was clearly neither a student nor retired, so why wasn’t I working.

I stayed in a hotel called the Metropole, in Cape Town, chosen partly as it shared its name, if few of the attributes, with what was, at the time, one of the fanciest hotels in Moscow.  I’d read the guide book on the plane, but it’s clear from the journal that I didn’t really know where to start, so I kept being drawn back to the Waterfront area, with stops along the way and round about; but I was preoccupied with the repeated warnings that I shouldn’t be out on my own after dark.  Returning to my room at dusk each day I seem to have spent the evenings watching Wimbledon on the television, wondering if I was missing out on anything as I couldn’t understand the commentary.

Two experiences which are etched on my memory are walking to the top of Table Mountain, and visiting Robben Island.

Reading my reaction to Robben Island makes me think about the difference between seeing what you expect to see, and being surprised at what you encounter.  I suppose I had seen news coverage of the prison, and read the history of the treatment of the political prisoners, and it’s clear from my diary that what I saw on my visit corresponded to what I had anticipated; small cells, and harsh and humiliating treatments.

What I reflected on more specifically was that the guide who showed us around the prison and the island was himself a former prisoner who had made the decision to return, in spite of what happened to him there; it’s a powerful way of reclaiming your own story.

And I hadn’t expected the village to be there; a whole community that had previously been home to the prison staff, houses, a post office and a primary school with a rapidly shrinking roll, and ginger haired children running around us as we toured the island.  It had been a whole micro society centred around the prison, in sight of, but isolated and distant from the city of Cape Town.

I also specifically noticed the discomfort of the boat to the island which was unimproved since it had been used as the prison supply vessel.

And the final sentence of the entry for 5 July was, I must eat something healthy tomorrow.….. So some things never change!

While We’re on the Subject of…… Penguins

Jill’s comment yesterday about the penguins at Boulders Beach in South Africa sent me back to flicking through my albums of my round the world trip in 1997.

My first port of call was Cape Town at the beginning of July, which everyone told me was a very odd time to visit South Africa; but it was off season, I didn’t need to plan too much in advance and could roll up to places unannounced and get a bed for the night.  To my eye, the weather was lovely, even though locals told me it was cold.

Before I went, I had no idea about the penguins, so close to the town.  But I went, I watched them and then I stayed at a bed and breakfast right beside the beach, which embraced the pure penguinness of the place.

While I was travelling, in my pre-digital camera days, I would have the rolls of completed film developed whenever I reached a place I would stay for a couple of days or enough time for them to be precessed.  After I’d weeded out any real duffers, I posted the prints back to my parents in the UK both for safe keeping, and so they could see where I was and what I was doing (this was also before I knew how to send email, or even if it were possible).  I kept the negatives just in case.  So when I got back to the UK after 5 months away I spent several enjoyable days reviewing the photos and remembering the adventures I’d had.

So now I’m thinking that maybe 15 years on I might occasionally post a reminder to myself where I was each week, and reflect on  the miles travelled and the people met.

Interested?  If you know the places now, you could tell me how they’ve changed in the intervening years.

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