Award-winning author and eminent scholar, Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Research Chair in Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University (SU), has conducted ground-breaking research on trauma, memory, reconciliation and forgiveness and established herself as a leading expert on these topics. Not surprisingly, Gobodo-Madikizela has also been rated by the National Research Foundation as a researcher who enjoys considerable international recognition by her peers.
As part of Women's Month celebrations at SU, the Corporate Communication Division spoke to Gobodo-Madikizela about her research.
You have written quite a lot on trauma, memory and forgiveness. Can you tell us more about your area of research?
After completing my Ph.D., my research was focused on questions around themes of remorse, empathy and forgiveness. This work has led me to exploring the role of dialogue when victims, perpetrators and beneficiaries of gross human rights abuses have to live together in one country, and sometimes as neighbours. Recently I have expanded this work to explore the concept of empathy more deeply by engaging a perspective that takes as its starting point the embodied African phenomenon of inimba ̶ a Xhosa word that loosely translated means “umbilical cord" ̶ and integrating it with the relational and psychoanalytic concept of intersubjectivity. The goal is to find a richer, deeper and more complex understanding of empathy that takes into account an African knowledge archive.
Why or how did you become interested in this specific area of research?
My interest in this work developed when I served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a member of the Human Rights Violations Committee. My first direct encounter with the trauma of violence was through work with human rights lawyers who were defending young anti-apartheid activists who had committed “necklace murders." I witnessed victims' expression of forgiveness for acts that were considered unforgiveable in established works such as that of German-born American political philosopher Hannah Arendt. In all the studies I read during my stay at Harvard University, there was no discussion of forgiveness, and very little – if anything – on remorse. When the TRC process was proving the experts wrong that the “banality of evil", to use Arendt's words, can be forgiven, I changed the focus of my PhD to do research on the theme of forgiveness. My goal was not so much to “promote" forgiveness as such, but rather to contribute to what seemed to me to be a new canon of knowledge regarding what's possible in the aftermath of the historical trauma of mass violence.
What do you enjoy most about being a researcher?
I enjoy it to constantly ask the question of relevance about well-established works and to explore new avenues of inquiry.
What does success mean to you?
I very rarely—if ever—think of myself in terms of “success." I feel challenged every day to do more, to do better. But there have been moments in my career when I have felt a deep sense of appreciation for the recognition that my work has received. Three moments of recognition stand out: Being awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Award in 2007 and receiving the Christopher Award in New York in 2003 for my book A Human Being Died that Night: A Story of Forgiveness. It was wonderful to be honoured at home for this book the following year with the Alan Paton Award. Receiving the Social Change Award from Rhodes University in 2010 was another heart-warming recognition. Of course, one feels some sense of joy, but I always feel these are gifts, I cannot take it for granted, because a lot of works still has to be done, in terms of mentoring young researchers, and continuing being an engaged citizen and scholar in our troubled country.
Can you name three people in history whom you admire?
The three who stand out for me are Noor Inayat Khan, Rosa Parks and Beyers Naudé. I read about Noor Inayat Khan for the first time in the private and enclosed section of our school library (at Inanda Seminary, a private school for African girls during the apartheid years) where books banned by the South African government were kept. She was a pacifist sent to Nazi-occupied France as a British spy working with the French Resistance during World War II. She was later captured and sent to the death camp Dachau just before the end of the war. Reportedly, her last words when she was executed were “Liberté!"
I admire Rosa Parks for her courage in the American civil rights movement and Beyers Naudé for his indomitable spirit, and disrupting the apartheid bubble. When I wrote my first book, his story was a great inspiration for my reflections on how individual and collective conscience can be silenced – and how it may be awakened.
Do you have any message for the next generation of women researchers?
Do not be afraid to venture into uncharted territory. The long-term value of your research engagement is its capacity to explore new avenues of inquiry. Strive to engage in research that is socially relevant. Work hard, read, engage in debates with your colleagues and keep your grades high.