Eugene de Kock was sentenced to two life sentences plus 212 additional years in prison for crimes committed during apartheid. He was released on parole in January 2015, after serving 20 years in jail. Last weekend de Kock made a controversial appearance at the Franschhoek Literary Festival where he was asked to leave a Sunday Times event. The question remains: can – or should – we forgive and forget? Investigative reporter Mandy Wiener investigates.

It was an overwhelmingly surreal moment: the vivacious model sitting in the stark, officious canteen of the Kgosi Mampuru II Prison in Pretoria. Across from her was the personification of apartheid. A death squad leader. The man responsible for murdering her father, Gelnak Masilo Mama, when she was just eight months old. Riddling his body with bullets and then setting him alight in an inferno orchestrated to look like an accident, when it was anything but.

‘I forgive you. But I want to know… do you forgive yourself?’ she gingerly asked him. It was the one question Eugene de Kock had hoped the relatives of his victims would never ask. As she watched him wiggle and weave away from the answer, Candice Mama’s heart swelled with empathy. Not with bitterness or hate.

He looked down and dabbed the side of his eye. ‘He went in circles,’ she remembers, ‘and then he said, “It’s a really difficult one for me to answer, when you’ve done the things I’ve done, how do you forgive yourself?” And that one line stuck with me throughout everything we discussed. This is a man who is truly remorseful. I don’t think he has forgiven himself. There’s no way that it’s humanly possible to forgive himself. In that moment my heart shattered,’ says the 23-year-old as she reminisces about that poignant meeting towards the end of 2014.

In January 2015, Justice Minister Michael Masutha announced that the 66-year-old former head of the infamous Vlakplaas unit (the police force’s counterinsurgency unit) would be released on parole ‘in the interests of nation building’. He had served 20 years in jail. In 1996, De Kock was sentenced to two life sentences in prison and a further 212 years for crimes he had committed during apartheid. He had been nicknamed ‘Prime Evil’ by his own men, for his role in apartheid-era atrocities that ranged from the use of parcel bombs to explosive earphones. The ex-colonel had appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that was established after the country’s transition into democracy and had confessed to scores of acts of murder and torture, taking full responsibility for the actions of his unit.

Image courtesy of the Mama family

Image courtesy of the Mama family

Towards the end of his time in prison, Eugene met with relatives of his victims and assisted the National Prosecuting Unit’s Missing Persons Task Team to recover remains of his victims. These actions bolstered the parole board’s view that he was indeed remorseful.

Candice and her family confronted Eugene in one of these meetings. Her father was one of the so-called Nelspruit Five, killed by the Vlakplaas unit in 1992. Candice has been a vociferous advocate of Eugene’s parole ever since and speaks openly about her forgiveness.

‘I tried to put myself in the same situation Eugene was put in – joining a police academy at 17 and being brainwashed into believing that everything you’re going to do is for the protection of your country, your government and your people. You build your whole foundation on that. One day you realise that everything you believed was a lie. Your whole world must shatter. You must crumble. Suddenly, the same reasoning you used to justify all your acts no longer applies and you must look yourself in the mirror and ask why.’

I’m awestruck by how generous Candice is with her empathy for the man. She speaks eloquently and philosophically about what she believes is his genuine remorse and even describes him as ‘one of the brilliant thinkers of our time’.

Is Candice an anomaly, I wonder? So willing to forgive because she did not form indelible memories with her father and was not old enough to witness first-hand the horror and trauma of his murder? For others of an older generation, the wounds remain raw and festering.

Read the full article in the June issue of Marie Claire on sale now.

For behind-the-scenes snippets and to listen to the people interviewed in this article visit The Wireless, a new podcast from Mandy Wiener.