Candice Mama tells her story of life after her father's murder in apartheid-era South Africa, and education's role in building a just society.
This article contains descriptions of violence.
This is my story
I was born in 1991 in South Africa, a country that was gripped by the grossly violent and oppressive system of apartheid.
My dad, Glenack Masilo Mama, was brutally killed
He died during a vicious and unjust time in our country’s history. My memories of him are only compilations of different people’s stories and pictures, that we collected over time.
However, the one thing I know for sure about my father is that he was tortured and then burnt to death by a man named Eugene de Kock. De Kock was a former South African Police colonel. In 1996, he was sentenced to two life sentences plus 212 years in prison on counts including crimes against humanity, murder, attempted murder and kidnapping.
In September 2014, the National Prosecuting Authority reached out to my family to enquire about whether or not we would like to meet him. As many would imagine, it wasn’t a decision we came to without many dinner-table discussions and some trepidation from members of the family.
We agreed to schedule our meeting for the following Tuesday
In the days to come, a sense of self-reflection overcame me. I went on to read numerous articles and books about the man dubbed 'Prime Evil', and his legacy as the embodiment of an unjustifiable system of hate and oppression. In meeting him I was choosing to learn and confront my memories.
Growing up in a house where reading and reflections were encouraged, I was able to put my dad’s killing into context. Which, in my mind, made his death mean something. He died fighting a system and wanting a different country for my brother and myself, which we are extremely fortunate to now be living in.
This made me realise I couldn’t hate De Kock because love and hate cannot operate in the same space. If I wanted to resent him, I would never be able to fully enjoy the life my dad and so many others willingly or unwillingly died for.
He had robbed me of a father and I had subconsciously given him sixteen years of my anger, anguish, sleepless nights and bouts of severe depression, as well as suicide attempts. Then one day, I just refused to allow him to take away my joy and enthusiasm for life any more than he already had.
So I did what I had to do and I forgave him
At the age of 23, there I was with my family ready to finally meet the man who took away not only my father, but so many others. I was surprised at how I froze and allowed my mother to lead the line of questioning until I became present again.
With every question asked and every answer given, my empathy grew for this complete stranger, who spoke so sincerely that I couldn’t help but let my defences down.
I surprised myself by crying, not because of who I had lost, but because I saw a man who was created by a regime and who took the fall for a government. A man who lost so much more than I would bear had I been in the same situation.
As I left, I felt like I had met one of the most brilliant thinkers of my time and someone who was also a victim of a system of indoctrination. I had forgiven him then, but having met him, I can say I have been changed by this encounter forever.
A few days later I wrote an open letter to our judicial system
'The African National Congress’s strategic objectives are to build a united nonracial, nonsexist and prosperous society. I believe in order to do that and fulfil the vision of the greats like Nelson Mandela, we have to go through the reconciliation process as a country, because there can be no progress without reconciliation.'
The mantra within the struggle was:
'The main enemy is the system and those who continue to support the system.'
Therefore, should we not extend a courtesy of fairness to a man who was ordered to commit those atrocities in the same way we extended a courtesy of fairness to those who ordered him to commit them?
This doesn’t make Eugene de Kock a martyr. It does, however, mean we remove the venom in our system as a country to move forward uncrippled by the past.
As former statesman Nelson Mandela said, ‘Forgiveness liberates the soul.'
Now I am a speaker on trauma and forgiveness
I have travelled and spoken at high schools and universities in South Africa. One thing that has always stood out very clearly was the failure of historical education. In question and answer sessions with students, they displayed a lack of understanding of apartheid.
Often, their only knowledge stemmed from an understanding of racial division as caused by apartheid, rather than the system itself. Apartheid to them was represented as a past war with only two main figures: Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk.
I spent less than six months of my schooling learning about South Africa
Most of our historical education was focused on the cold war and conflicts that did not affect my own country. I had to seek my own education to fully understand the era in which my father was killed and put it into context it in a way that allowed me the freedom to correct my traumatic memory.
It was only in going through this process that I had enough information and context to forgive my father’s killer.
Before I took that step, I was like many young people I still see today. I theoretically understood the very basic nature of apartheid, but not its brutality – which raised two problems. The first being that black students understood they were disadvantaged; however, they did not understand exactly how this had occurred.
This allowed certain leaders to rewrite their own version of history, and to radicalise those who had no other understanding.
The second issue was that white youth dealt either with a silent guilt they were too ashamed to address, or they believed that they had done nothing wrong and therefore refused to acknowledge any privilege they received.
This has contributed to a new wave of extremist leaders in South Africa
They have capitalised on the poor quality of historical education, and the people’s frustration at the lack of change within their immediate environments. This has allowed the youth to be more prone to being persuaded by the revisionist history promoted by emerging political parties and leaders.
Education is a vital element in building social empathy. More importantly, it’s vital in ensuring the past will never be repeated.
Education need not only happen through the formal education system
The organisation Fighters for Peace shows that. They unite former combatants who had been in the Lebanese Civil war, but only those who have can address their own role and conduct, recognising their mistakes and speaking freely about why they are now committed to peace and reconciliation. They then travel across Lebanon and hold discussions with young people about the war.
This is all because conflict is a taboo in Lebanese society, and it is not taught in schools and universities. Thus the telling of stories is left to former soldiers who may be stuck in the past. This risks potentially transferring their trauma to a new generation.
Fighters for Peace also uses the arts, such as film-making, to effectively communicate memories and the experience of conflict and suffering in a safe space. Others can learn, and so those traumatised by conflict can express it in a creative way, and know they are not alone.
When people know their country’s collective trauma and past, they can acknowledge the pain caused and help ensure it will never be repeated. This gives people space to embark on the journey of personal, and later collective, forgiveness.
I am a passionate believer in my generation, and so I think it is important to encourage more dialogues such as the Peace and Beyond conference, and to include young people and the post-conflict generation, to allow us to be part of the way forward.
Young people no longer want to be spoken for
They want a platform for the issues that deeply affect them every day. What happens when young people don't have a voice?
An example is the #FeesMustFall movement across universities in South Africa. Youth from low-income households have the opportunity to attend university; they witness the large gap in inequality, the gloomy contrast of their reality versus that of their more privileged counterparts.
They also note the lack of acknowledgement of both disadvantage and privilege within higher education. All of that, as Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela said at the Peace and Beyond conference, means they are constantly reliving a conflict that was supposed to have ended, and be suffering a trauma that has been handed on to them by previous generations.
When Nelson Mandela stepped out of prison, the world felt the hope he symbolised
Many people held onto that dream of a utopian society, expecting that it would seamlessly unfold. However, it is up to the nation to equip its people with the capacity and tools to confront the past. Then it is up to the individuals to take those tools and move forward.
Candice Mama is a forgiveness and reconciliation ambassador. This article is a version of her essay, available in the collection Peace and Beyond: reflections on building inclusive and sustainable peace.
The Peace Perceptions Poll 2018 is a partnership between the British Council and International Alert. Read the full report.