Psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela Wins Templeton Prize

2024 Templeton Prize Winner Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela photographed in Cape Town, South Africa Credit - Courtesy of Templeton Prize, Photograph by Stefan Elsfor—Stellenbosch University

Every year since 1972, the Templeton Foundation has given a Nobel Prize-sized amount of money to a researcher who is exploring in a rigorous, scientific way "the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it." This year the $1.3 million prize is going to Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist and professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, who looks at how people come together in the aftermath of horrific national violence, and particularly at the mechanisms of trauma and forgiveness.

Gobodo-Madikizela served on South Africa's groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which, after the fall of the apartheid regime, offered citizens the opportunity to come forward and tell the stories of the injustices committed against them as well as the injustices they committed. The Commission, which was initially chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was active from 1995 until 2002.

TIME spoke to Gobodo-Madikizela about her work researching the processes by which humans can end the cycle of violence and revenge that often perpetuates conflict from one generation into the next, particularly about how forgiveness, remorse, and intergenerational trauma work. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Your research explores how countries can mend in the aftermath of violence, and you’ve coined the idea of a “reparative quest.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

I started researching to understand how do people forgive in the context of tragedy when a loved one has been murdered or violated in very tragic ways? How does a family reach out? What are the conditions that made this possible? Most scholars have not been thinking about the possibility of forgiveness in these kinds of contexts. [The Truth and Justice Commission] was a moment that offered us an opportunity to think this through, not the philosophical, abstract theoretical phenomenon, but rather as something that's has been experienced by people who have gone through it. And I worked with perpetrators, for example, who have been remorseful, and victims who were forgiving, to understand that relationship. I came to a point where I was rethinking the language of forgiving and it brought me to this language of repair, which came closer to the idea of what to do when there are wounds that are irreparable. It captures more accurately what that process involves.

How is it different from the process of seeking and offering forgiveness?

It's a constant journey to repair and to heal. The wound remains, the hurt and the pain and the trauma remain. So for people who have been implicated, that's waking up every day thinking about what are the actions, what are the gestures, what are the words that might repair this history? The reparative quest, for me, comes from a way of understanding the process of reckoning with the past that is not a forgiving, because forgiving tends to suggest finality, that there's an end point—I have forgiven, I can move on—whereas the notion of the reparative quest suggests this is journeying with a trauma and journeying with someone who has wounded others, who carries shame or guilt. These are journeys of repair that involve people from both sides of this historical past.

The world is in conflict right now. The wars in Europe, in the Middle East, and in parts of Africa are at this moment causing wounds that will echo into the future. Can any steps be taken during conflict, or do you have to wait for a while and then begin this process of repair?

While the hostilities are going on, it's very difficult to speak about repair. People are wounding, people are being wounded, and people are being violated. There isn't a time to stop to think about what can be done. What drives people is revenge and vengeance and then you get these cycles that so often repeat themselves historically. The hope in these situations is that there will emerge a different kind of leadership, people who have that sense of moral imagination and are capable of modeling a way of stopping and thinking and reflecting on different ways of engagement so that people have a chance to think about what kind of futures they want.

Could a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission work in the aftermath of the Ukraine and Gaza conflicts? And might it also be a good approach for the sorts of historical grievances that keep cropping up in America?

Truth commissions are very essential, because they are about accountability. The process makes people feel that the pain and trauma they suffered over the years has been acknowledged, but also invite those who have perpetrated the pain and the trauma to take account of their own actions. If you look at the Commission in South Africa, there are certain things that could have happened that could have made the outcome better. The Truth Commission was dealing with a very important aspect of the past: the emotional life of victims and the emotional life of those perpetrators who dared to look into their conscience and admit that they crossed the line. What it did not do was to address the question of, how do you then restore the conditions of a quality of life? How do you restore what was lost for families, for example, who lost breadwinners? What was lost in terms of opportunities and privileges to go to school, to get better jobs, to be trained for jobs?

Your book, A Human Being Died That Night, grew out of your conversations with Eugene de Kock, one of the worst known criminals of the apartheid era, who came forward during the Commission. He's now out of prison. Are you still in touch with him?

Since COVID, I lost touch with him. But every now and again, there will be a telephone communication. He obviously is very isolated now. He lives under guard. He's in a protected house that is owned by the state and is not his. He's out of prison but is not a free man. He's sitting alone with his crimes because the South Africans for whom he committed the crimes are nowhere to be seen near him. There's been a sense of major distancing from him, and from his crimes, and so he finds himself very isolated. And that has made his remorse extremely, extremely challenging. And because de Kock is a very central part of my thinking and my writing and reflecting on these processes, I've also started writing about the limits of remorse. It is very clear to me the need to be held by a community of others, particularly others for whom the evil deeds were committed. Psychologically, there is a serious disintegration of the self in the absence of that holding.

A lot of people don't really understand generational trauma, how someone suffer the effects of a trauma that they did not endure. How would you explain it?  

When we speak about the traumas being passed on from generation to generation, it's that certain memory traces are passed on because the stories that are told become an identity of a particular group or a particular family. And when the circumstances and conditions do not change, it exacerbates the meaning of these memory traces, so that they continue to mean something. Let’s look, for example, in the U.S., at the story of George Floyd. When African Americans witnessed it, it immediately evoked memories of enslavement. That doesn't mean the current generation feel enslaved, but the fact that they know that this is their history, it's an identity that is carried in the body and the indelible imprint remains, particularly if there hasn't been any process of acknowledgment, of working through this trauma. It's almost as if these generations carry on the mourning into the next generation and the next generation because the conditions that caused the mourning still remain.

You said in an interview that you think that humans will never eradicate racism, which seems very depressing. Do you see any signs of hope?

There is always a sense of hope, but the experiences and the challenge of racism, I do not believe will ever be eradicated. But there is hope; some of the work of the Commission is evidence that it is possible to bridge the divide. It's all the more reason why we should put greater efforts in learning from these experiences that have taught us that the possibility always remains.

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