Notes from Cape Town

In 1995, a year after the end of apartheid, South Africa’s new government formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Disgraced officials met face to face with their victims, offering up their sins in exchange for amnesty. Not everyone got off so easily. Eugene de Kock, the architect of apartheid’s secret police force and an executioner responsible for thousands of murders, spoke to the commission despite serving a 212-year prison sentence.

The psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela spent several months interviewing de Kock in his cell at Pretoria Central Prison. In her book, A Human Being Died That Night, she describes being by turns charmed, repulsed, drawn in. Something de Kock says makes her want to comfort him—and she reaches out to touch his “clenched, cold, and rigid” hand. Later, he informs her that it was “ ‘my trigger hand you touched.’ ” She notes then how he splits himself into sections, corralling his bad acts into a discrete part of his body, and concludes that she must do the same: “It was through ‘splitting’ that I too . . . had managed to separate the evil deeds from the doer . . . [to] embrace the side of de Kock that showed some of the positive elements of being human.”

This splitting mechanism has its roots in apartheid—what Gobodo-Madikizela calls a “compartmentalization of South African thinking.”

There were two South Africas: white and black. Similarly, there was the public world and the private world, the open and the covert. And they were rigidly separate. . . . White South African bystanders were able to live with the brutality against blacks because it was being carried out in relative secret, in that “other world.” Everyone engaged in an “apartheid of the mind.”

One wants, post-apartheid, to be able to frame South Africa more cohesively, but what’s happening now that the barriers have come down simply feels schizophrenic. The sweep of the view from Silvermine Reserve; tourists buying farm-stall watermelon konfyt; teams of manual laborers in their distinctive blue jumpsuits; a man left for dead on the shoulder of the road, having been robbed of his prosthetic leg: it won’t, it cannot, cohere. The splitting going on today is not so much about race or public disclosure as it is about time: the newness of this democracy versus the welter of memory, and its bitterness. Mandela deferred the reckoning for a while. He acted as a stopgap, his promises of a gorgeous future made credible by his ancient face.

Now AIDS has distorted time, but in a different way; it has retroactively poisoned the hopeful past. It stayed dormant, or at least unobtrusive, during those first euphoric years, until it erupted everywhere at once. Government ministers began dying at 40 of “TB”—but TB was an opportunistic infection caused by AIDS, something the newspaper obituaries never mentioned. HIV transmission was stealthy—covert, to use Gobodo-Madikizela’s term—and its silence implied a national hex, or worse. It didn’t seem much of a stretch to think of the disease as apartheid’s latest iteration. It was killing only black people, after all. Perhaps disgraced Boer officials and American pharmaceutical companies had conspired to make condoms spread the disease? And condoms were oddly slimy; many men preferred “dry sex,” wherein a woman used herbs, soil, or salt to desiccate her vaginal lining. Condoms dulled sensation—you didn’t eat candy with the wrapper on—but if you slept with x many virgins, you might get rid of the virus. Hence the spate of baby rapes, unthinkable yet easily explained. Health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang urged everyone to get well via a robust diet of beetroot, garlic, and olive oil; a gentle-looking lady named Sonette Ehlers patented a device called Rapex, a female condom fitted with tiny barbs.

More from Issue 5

More by this Author