Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a clinical psychologist. As an academic in the 1980s, she provided expert testimony in defence of young black anti-apartheid activists charged with serious crimes. In the mid-1990s, she was working on a doctorate at Harvard University, but she postponed its completion when she was invited to serve on one of the specialist structures of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Until April 1998, she served as member of the TRC's Human Rights Violations Committee, organising public hearings and community outreach activities.
Colonel Eugene de Kock was a spook, a hit man, an agent operating for two decades in the murky recesses of the apartheid state, whose career culminated in the command of the farm Vlakplaas. This was a key "counterinsurgency" unit, a covert and lushly funded base for political killings, abductions, cross-border raids, gunrunning and more mundane crimes such as theft for personal gain. De Kock was arrested in May 1994.
Most state witnesses at his trial had been co-conspirators and even close friends; now, they sought amnesty under the TRC by shopping their hit squad commander.
De Kock was convicted of six murders, conspiracy, manslaughter, kidnapping, assault and fraud. At Vlakplaas, he was involved in the deaths of some 65 people; earlier, during his service in Namibia, his secret unit killed hundreds of supporters of the liberation movement Swapo. He attracted various soubriquets over the years - but the one that the media found irresistible was Prime Evil. His impassive features, helmet of dark hair and heavy spectacles provided the face of apartheid brutality: here, in the flesh, was someone who drank beer and barbecued meat alongside the smouldering remains of victims, being burnt to ashes.
When Gobodo-Madikizela first interviewed him, he was held in "C-Max" - the high-security section of Pretoria Central Prison. Garbed in orange overalls, his legs shackled in chains, de Kock rose awkwardly, politely, as Gobodo-Madikizela entered, and in a heavy Afrikaans accent said shyly:
"It's a pleasure to meet you." She recalls the moment: "I saw a flicker of boyishness, of uncertainty. At the same time, my mind registered 'Prime Evil'... De Kock had not just given apartheid's murderous evil a name. He had become that evil. The embodiment of evil stood there politely smiling at me."
It was an extraordinary encounter, memorably narrated. And it provides the mainspring for this short, thoughtful and sombre set of reflections on the nature of evil, the human capacity for forgiveness and the possibility of national reconciliation.
Gobodo-Madikizela wanted to interview de Kock because when he testified to the TRC he detailed his role in killing three African policemen suspected of becoming whistleblowers. Then he asked to meet their widows. He wanted to apologise to them, in private. Gobodo-Madikizela met the women a week later. Moved by his apology, they forgave him. "I hope that when he sees our tears, he knows that they are not only tears for our husbands, but tears for him as well," said Pearl Faku.
Did he, pondered Gobodo-Madikizela, merit such generosity? Was he intrinsically evil? Can a society confronting past atrocities find a future tense of accommodation? T. S. Eliot's question in Gerontion echoes: "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"
Her answer is hard won but hopeful. She recounts successive meetings with de Kock, and how these encounters - when their hands touched, their use of each other's first names - made possible her wary acceptance of his humanity, scarred and deficient though it is.
Forgiveness is necessary, but not sufficient, for it does not erase the past. But forgiveness creates "a provisional vocabulary of reconciliation".
To make this vocabulary permanent is the key political challenge. In a nation recuperating from conflict, politicians "need to move beyond mere talk about 'peace' and 'forging ahead' in 'our great nation' and begin to demonstrate actual commitment to solving the hard problems of a community still learning to talk to itself".
Gobodo-Madikizela provides some important points of departure for such a conversation.
Colin Bundy is warden, Green College, Oxford.
A Human Being Died that Night: Forgiving Apartheid's Chief Killer
Author - Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Publisher - Portobello Books
Pages - 193
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 1 846 053 7