Face to face with trauma

Two passionate women lead the journey towards healing

One is a University professor who was a key figure in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The other is a young activist whose father was murdered by the head of Vlakplaas, Eugene De Kock.

Healing the traumas of the past is the passion moving two special South African women.

Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela has placed this passion at the centre of her academic work at the University of the Free State. She is Senior Research Professor and with the support of the Mellon Foundation runs a research project in trauma, memory, forgiveness and representations of the past.

Candice Mama is an undergraduate student in Communications at the University of South Africa (Unisa). She majors in communications and psychology and has recently had to grapple with forgiving Eugene De Kock who murdered her father, Glenack Masilo Mama in 1992. He was 25 years old and an activist from Dube, Soweto. Candice was eight months old at the time of his death.

Candice Mama

Candice Mama

The two were in conversation at the university’s Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice earlier this year, the one skillfully drawing out the other to tell her riveting story.

Here follows an edited audio recording of their conversation. Listen to it and decide if they are inspirational South Africans deserving celebration on Women’s Day.

While Pumla is the trained psychologist familiar with the unfolding dynamics, Candice’s youthful exuberance helps to carry her through the difficult narrative of how the murder took place and how she had to face the murderer recently.

In an interview with The Journalist, Candice later jokes that she was always interested in news and had then “became the news herself.”

“I studied communications because I wanted to become a journalist and a news anchor before I became the news, that was the direction,” she laughs. “I still would like to continue in that direction of reporting on news but now maybe get into a doccie series and doing informative education that will still entertain the youth,” she said.

She describes herself as a dreamer and a hopeful who would like to change the world. She has a firm belief in the value of dialogues.

“I believe that as soon as we discuss things we can find solutions to fixing them. So in South Africa, where there are so many traumas, my passion lies with the youth. I’d like to help empower them, give them hope and mobilise them to action because I know how hard it was for me personally before I started this journey. I just want to help the youth who are in similar situations and show them where the opportunities are,” she says.

Candice Mama and her family meet Eugene de Kock

Candice Mama and her family meet Eugene de Kock

She is a Tears (Transform education about rape and sexual abuse) foundation ambassador and she is also part of a mentorship programme that helps to search for bursaries for youths who are between 16 and 18 years of age. In addition, she is also part of a series of public dialogue sessions in various universities across the country looking at topics such as racism, trauma and xenophobia. Aside from her studies, Mama is currently writing a book on her journey of forgiveness and she is also involved in various projects that are aimed at empowering the lives of others. At age 23, she is fortunate to have a mentor as accomplished as Pumla who is quietly and consistently plugging away at the difficult issues of understanding our traumas and finding ways to heal.

“Few topics stake a more compelling claim on humanities research than the legacies of historical trauma – the impact of genocide and mass atrocities not only on individuals and groups that experienced the violence directly, but also across multiple generations of the descendants of survivors,” said Pumla.

“Trauma’s transmission across generations is probably one of the most urgent questions of the 21st century. This is why healing from trauma is so important, because dealing with trauma can interrupt its intergenerational repercussions, which may manifest in a range of ways, including through violence. Yet healing from the traumas brought about by oppressive regimes and massive violence is a nearly impossible task precisely because its consequences often play out in ways that may seem unrelated to the original traumatic experiences,” said Pumla. “And as we try to rebuild our country, the violence remains embedded deep in our psyches leading to more traumas.”

For her professorial inaugural lecture at UCT in 2010, she studied the work that has been done to transform the lives of farm workers and descendants of slaves on the 320-year-old Solms Delta estate in Franschhoek. Her lecture entitled “The ‘Face of the Other’: Human Dialogue at Solms Delta and the Meaning of Moral Imagination, focused on the process of transformation that made the farm workers co-owners of the wine business at Solms Delta, restoring the workers’ human dignity. The farm is owned by Professor Mark Solms, who established the Museum Van de Caab and dedicated the museum to honouring the farm’s slave heritage and memorialising the individuals who lived and worked on the farm, from pre-colonial times to the present. The Journalist, Issue 38.focuses on the transformational issues on this farm that has provided inspiration to many.

While she has settled down on the Free State campus and the university claims her as one of its most outstanding professors, a little bit of her belongs to at least three other South African universities. She completed her undergraduate studies and Honours degree in Psychology at Fort Hare. She went on to complete a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at Rhodes University and then received her PhD in Psychology at the University of Cape Town. Her main interests are traumatic memories in the aftermath of political conflict, post-conflict reconciliation, empathy, forgiveness and psychoanalysis.

Where their energies will lead our country will be interesting to watch over the next few years. These two women certainly are both leaders in one of the most difficult areas of reconstruction in our wounded country.