The Change Maker
Confronting the pain and trauma of her childhood in South Africa — including the police murder of her father — Candice Mama became an icon of forgiveness. Now, as new co-CEO of the nonprofit AIME, she’s advocating for a rethink of society’s priorities. By Lance Richardson. Photography by Nic Walker
Candice Mama was nine years old when she opened the book that would change the way she saw the world.
It was stored in her mother’s bedroom, a forbidden thing that seemed to make guests burst into tears whenever it was brought out and passed around, delicately, like a live grenade. Mama was not permitted to look herself, but she memorised the number of the page her mother always recited — the page that contained a picture of her father, Glenack Masilo Mama. The book was titled “Into the Heart of Darkness: Confessions of Apartheid’s Assassins”, by the investigative journalist Jacques Pauw. One day, when Mama was alone in the house, she retrieved it and opened it to the right page. Glenack Masilo was not an assassin, but he was a victim of one. The picture of her father showed what was done to his body.
“It was a horrific book to discover,” Mama now recalls with a shudder. She vowed that day never to peek again, though some tactless television interviewers have flashed it at her over the years without any warning. “I try not to even watch my own clips,” she says.
What does the sight of something so terrible do to a young person? Your father’s charred remains, still clutching the steering wheel of the minibus he’d been driving when he suddenly perished. Glimpsing that would utterly derail my life, I think, send me spinning off into juvenile delinquency, depression, maybe even alcohol abuse. Yet here is Mama, flashing a smile that Julia Roberts might envy as she describes pretty much the opposite effect. The trauma of that grisly image did not destroy her. Rather, she overcame her family history — and managed, eventually, to forgive her father’s assassin, Eugene de Kock, a South African police colonel convicted on 89 charges and sentenced to more than 200 years in prison for his crimes during apartheid.
Mama’s ability to forgive what many might consider unforgivable made her a media sensation in South Africa in 2014. Since then, she has shared her story on podcasts and in documentaries. She has given a Ted talk — “How Forgiveness Saved My Life” — and been named by French Vogue as one of the most inspiring women in the world. She has been celebrated as a peacemaker by the United Nations and honoured by the three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Evelin Lindner for her work in promoting reconciliation.
Most recently, Mama has been named co-CEO of Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME), a relational network that creates projects and develops research to tackle the problems of our time. Mama is in charge of what she calls “kindness economics”.
“What happens when you put people and compassion ahead of profit?” she asks. “We’re creating different ecosystems to test this out. We’re going into festivals, into organisations. And hopefully one day kindness economics will pop up at the World Economic Forum as an alternative to the current system we live under.” An ambitious goal, perhaps, though she believes the time is right for a radical rethink of how we organise our societies. “Change is happening. Do you want to be ahead of the change or do you want to be toppled by it?”
Mama refuses to be toppled by anything. She spent the first few years of her life living with her great-grandmother in a small farming town called Mahikeng (then known as Mafikeng). As Mama writes in her 2019 memoir, “Forgiveness Redefined” (Tracey McDonald Publishers), the house was made of clay. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were variations of the same gruel. One relative would punish her with freezing baths during the winter, and there is a family story that this same relative once spiked her juice with rat poison. She writes that the deadly cocktail was knocked out of her hand just before she drank it.
When Mama was four, her mother retrieved her from Mahikeng, introducing her to a brother she hadn’t known even existed. The family moved to Sophiatown, in the suburbs of Johannesburg, a notoriously dangerous city in the 1990s. One of Mama’s earliest memories is of running from teenage boys in black balaclavas on Guy Fawkes Day, when the neighbourhood descended into anarchy. “You had to run for your life,” she recalls, “or else you were going to wake up in a ditch with no school shoes and without books.” The experience, however, was character-building. Growing up in Jo’burg “gives you so much confidence in the world”, Mama says. “I remember I got lost in Brooklyn once. It was a very shady part of Brooklyn, with drug addicts everywhere. These dudes were trying to holler at me, and I was just like, ‘Sirs, please don’t waste my time.’”
Mama was educated at an integrated school, which led to a rude awakening about the realities of race in South Africa. Because her mother was mixed race (white mother, Black father), Mama herself was lighter skinned than some other students, including a girl who questioned the legitimacy of her Blackness. Apartheid may have been officially over, but remnants of its racial hierarchy remained strong — as they still do today. “Even now, when I speak a traditional South African language, people question me: ‘Why do you do that?’” Why, in other words, are you pretending to be Blacker than you are?
Mama says her childhood involved domestic violence, physical and mental abuse, and a pervasive feeling of not being wanted. But nothing could compare to the shock of “The Book”, as she calls “Into the Heart of Darkness”. It would take her years to piece together exactly what had happened to her father when she was eight months old. Glenack Masilo had been an active member — a soldier — of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which fought against the apartheid regime. In 1992, he was participating in a PAC mission to the city of Mbombela (then named Nelspruit) when the Vlakplaas, a paramilitary hit squad commanded by de Kock, intercepted and destroyed his vehicle using bullets and then gasoline.
After seeing the image of her father, Mama struggled with depression, which manifested as stomach ulcers. She also found herself questioning everything she’d been told about her country. A history class at school presented apartheid as “a simple system of white people living in one place and Black people in another”. It downplayed the violence, oppression and systemic dehumanisation of the majority of the population. Fed up with the evasion, Mama challenged her teacher, saying, “Sir, the history you are trying to teach isn’t accurate.” He kicked her out of the classroom for insubordination. Since then, she has come to blame the education system more generally for sanitising the past. The unwillingness to speak honestly about apartheid has led to an alarming lack of knowledge among people whose lives are still influenced by its shadow. “I remember going to a university to give a keynote,” says Mama, “and I remember a Black student stood up for Q&A and said, ‘Ma’am, I love your story. But don’t you think it’s time that you just get over it?’ ”
Mama responded by conducting a short role-play. She invited the Black student onto the stage, then asked for a white South African volunteer. She asked them both what their mothers did for a living. The Black student’s mother was a domestic worker. The white student’s mother ran a farm, which she also owned. Why, Mama asked, was there such a difference between the two women? “Because of apartheid,” she told the Black student. “We started the race 10 metres behind the line. Your white peers have started it at the 23-metre mark.” For some students in the audience, “this was the first time they had started to think about the system they were raised in”, Mama recalls.
Before we spoke over Zoom, I read through Mama’s memoir. The chapters on her tumultuous upbringing made for some harrowing reading, and I filled the margins of my copy with exclamation marks and various expletives. Yet it was the forgiveness mentioned in the title that struck me the hardest. What is forgiveness? And what does she mean by “redefining” it?
As a child, Mama had been raised to think about forgiveness in several familiar ways. To forgive means to forget something bad. It means to absolve a culprit of their guilt. It means to permit somebody to remain a part of your life. And it means you risk looking weak. None of these points appealed to Mama when she thought about her father’s murder. “I was like, I can’t forget, and I don’t want to forget, because it is such a pivotal part of who I am as a person.”
Over time, though, she came to consider forgiveness from another direction. In her book, Mama quotes Nelson Mandela: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Bitterness and hatred were just as much of a prison as Robben Island had been. Realising this, Mama asked herself: “Do I want to spend my time in a space of resentment and anger towards someone who cannot change their actions? Or do I want to free myself?” She was giving de Kock “incredible power” over her life by constantly dwelling on his actions, imagining them like a horror movie in her head. Forgiving him, Mama decided after much reflection and some dabbling with Buddhism and Christianity, would be a form of self-liberation. Once she came to this conclusion — once she redefined forgiveness — she felt suddenly lighter, “like a feather drifting through the wind, alert and aware that I no longer had the burden on my shoulders”.
But what makes Mama so remarkable is that she also forgave de Kock for real, face to face. Hers was not just an abstract epiphany. In 2014, the National Prosecuting Authority invited the families of de Kock’s victims to confront him in Kgosi Mampuru II prison in Pretoria. “I never anticipated that I would end up meeting Eugene at all,” Mama recalls of the opportunity. “When we were driving to the prison, I was trying not to have any expectations as to what was going to happen.” Sitting in the conference room, her family cracked jokes to relieve the tension. “And I remember just turning around and, as though by magic, Eugene was sitting there. My body jolted. I was in complete shock. He looked like a man who had been frozen in time, which was also very jarring. And I remember when the priest started the encounter, I physically could not speak.”
The family took turns asking de Kock questions about Glenack Masilo. When Mama finally did manage to find her voice, she told him that she wanted to forgive him. But she needed to know one thing first: “Do you forgive yourself?” The question caught de Kock off-guard. “He [was] such a stoic man,” Mama says. “And for the first time, he lost his balance.” The prisoner replied, “When you’ve done the things I’ve done, how do you forgive yourself?” Mama broke down, then surprised everybody by asking to hug him. “And I remember when he stood up, and he held me so tight, it wasn’t lost on me that the hands that were being used to comfort me were the same hands that had taken away my father.” The whole event, she now recalls, was so contrary to what one might have expected from a confrontation about a senseless murder. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming. De Kock apologised to the family, and Mama accepted his apology. She even felt empathy for the former assassin, a man the media had nicknamed “Prime Evil”. “When I look back on it now, I have so much care and concern for him, which is very shocking to people,” she says.
After the encounter, Mama wrote about her experience on Facebook. The post went viral, which led to interviews and the public spotlight, particularly when de Kock was granted parole in 2015. While not everybody understood her decision to forgive — “What makes you think you can forgive that racist?” a man once demanded at her local gym — Mama remains adamant that she made the right choice.
As a young person in Johannesburg, she had once daydreamed about becoming a foreign correspondent. She liked the idea of telling other people’s stories to help elicit positive change. The work she has done since forgiving de Kock is just another version of that old dream. “It’s just that I’m telling my own story,” Mama says with another smile, “in order to spark new ways of thinking.”
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our ninth edition, Page 14 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “The Change Maker”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.