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Templeton Prize Honors Scholar of Forgiveness

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a familiar name to those who have studied South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and her receiving the Templeton Foundation Prize for 2024 will spread her name to a wider audience still.

Gobodo-Madikizela is a psychologist, research chair, and scholar of forgiveness at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, near Cape Town. She served on the commission from 1995 to 1998, leading the Human Rights Violations Committee and its public hearings in the Western Cape.

She is from an Anglican background, worked extensively with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and wrote a dramatic tribute to him after his death.

Her scholarship is informed by her involvement in the fraught conversations that often must precede forgiveness. Her book A Human Being Died That Night (2013) documents her conversations with Eugene de Kock, who commanded death squads during the years of apartheid.

De Kock’s emerging conscience about his past led him to request private meetings with the widows of his victims.

The Templeton Prize honors figures who harness “the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” Philanthropist Sir John Templeton established the prize in 1973, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the first recipient. Since then, the prize has honored, among many others, hospice founder Cicely Saunders, evangelist Billy Graham, Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, mathematical physicist and priest John C. Polkinghorne, the 14th Dalai Lama, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom, and Archbishop Tutu.

In an interview with Belinda Luscombe of Time, Gobodo-Madikizela expanded on her thought that racism will never be eradicated. “There is always a sense of hope, but the experiences and the challenge of racism, I do not believe, will ever be eradicated,” she said. “But there is hope; some of the work of the Commission is evidence that it is possible to bridge the divide.”

Churches have a crucial role to play in forgiveness, she said in a 2012 interview with Aleta Payne of Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership, if they will step up to it.

“The church already has a group of people who are ready to receive the good news. And the good news is not only biblical good news; it is also doing the work to make sure that people live in a spirit of good news,” she said.

“There was a time in my country where churches fought to play the role that churches are supposed to play, and they did it magnificently. The churches and people in the church like Archbishop Tutu and the Rev. Peter Storey spoke truth to power and lived the truth by example.

“And that is what is needed, and that is what is missing, even in my country today. Having had that magnificent, shining history, churches today have just withdrawn. It’s almost as if the Truth Commission came, the evildoers confessed, and now we’re supposed to just go on as if nothing is wrong with our society.”

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